Stanford psychology professor Gregory Walton GRD ’05 addressed an audience of 30 Friday evening at Sterling Chemistry Laboratory on how to reduce inequality for women in the STEM fields.
In a lecture as part of the DiversiTeas series, organized by the Center for Teaching and Learning, Walton gave a talk entitled “Fraught Interactions: How Stereotypes Shape Women’s Experience in STEM and What We Can Do About it.” Walton’s research focuses on the nature of disenfranchisement, stereotypes and self-identity in academic settings. He spoke about the need for academic settings like Yale to work to create a more inclusive, less threatening environments for disadvantaged groups. After presenting social psychology studies that exemplified the differences in equality and peer acceptance for women in the STEM fields and discussing remedies to counteract inequality, Walton engaged the audience in a post-lecture discussion with tips on how to improve workplaces and academic settings, including tactics on how to create safer spaces.
“My goal today is to help you have your own conversation as a community to see how the issues and experiences you are encountering might be understood in a formal social scientist perspective,” Walton said.
Walton compared the feeling many women have in STEM workplaces to a moment in the movie “8 Mile” when the white rapper Eminem is unable to perform in an all-black rap battle because he is told that people of his race are incapable of performing well. Walton claimed that whenever people enter into a setting that may promote a negative stereotype about them — like female students in a male-dominated physics class, for example — they are vigilant for cues as to whether they belong. Walton argued that people will ask three different questions when they encounter a new environment: Will people treat them with respect or view them as a stereotype; if they perform poorly, will they think the stereotype is true and can they belong and succeed here?
Walton said social settings that adults enter into today are not blatantly biased, but rather “covert and sophisticated in their exclusivity.” He said that in a room full of Caucasians, an African-American individual might count how many other people of color are in the room, submitting to a numerical representation of belonging. He said women in STEM are likely to do the same, evaluating whether they can succeed in an environment dominated by males by counting the number of females in the field.
“Think about what you want the environment to represent, what you want it to be,” Walton said, advising attendees on how to create better places of work. “[We need to] ask ourselves: What is the environment signaling, what do we want it to signal?”
Walton cited a study conducted at Indiana University in which participants were shown two different videos of a STEM conference. One video represented an equal numbers of males and females, but in the other, the conference was male-dominated. While showing the participants the two separate videos, Murphy measured their cardiovascular response and the degree to which participants felt threatened after viewing each video. Female subjects had a higher cardiovascular response than the men who were shown the video of an unbalanced gender representation. The women subjects also reported feeling more threatened and anticipated that they would not belong at the conference.
Walton proposed a series of remedies to this pervasive issue. Walton encouraged audience members to create safe spaces for people to work together and to address cues in the workplace — like “portraits of old, white males”— that may be perceived as threats to women.
He also encouraged audience members to foster positive interactions between men and women and to incorporate personal values at work to help each individual feel like a “whole person” and not a stereotype.
Attendees interviewed agreed that institutions like Yale should be taking more steps to reduce inequalities among genders. All six female attendees interviewed said they had either experienced unequal treatment or had witnessed another woman experiencing unequal treatment.
“Yale deals with inequalities for women very inefficiently,” said Mahnaz Sahraei, a postdoctoral associate at the School of Medicine. “When a problem comes up in the School of Medicine, it goes to the dean, who sends it to a committee, that sends it to a subcommittee and another subcommittee and another subcommittee and the problem eventually gets dissolved so you don’t hear about it for a year.
Marissa Tousley GRD ’17, an engineering student, said members of the STEM faculty should be required to attend talks like Walton’s.
Joyce Guo ’17 said that while she believes the administration would support most initiatives to foster a better work environment for women in STEM, she feels that much of the burden is left on the students or on the STEM faculty.
“Every professor should have to listen to the lecture we just heard,” Guo said Friday. “A lot of the faculty who show up are interested and want to make a difference but there is a core set of faculty that isn’t showing up.”