How Exposure to Role Models Boosts Women’s Decisions to Major in STEM Fields

A new study, authored by Catherine Porter of Lancaster University in England and Danila Serra of Texas A&M University, finds that women students become more likely to study subjects or pursue careers in STEM fields if they encounter successful women role models in those fields.

Researchers had women economists address students in introductory courses in economics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who had planned on majoring in the humanities. Women typically make up about 45 percent of the students in introductory economics courses at the university but only 25 percent of the students who earn bachelor’s degrees in the subject.

The researcher found women students who were addressed by women economists decided to change their course of study and major in economics at twice the rate of women students in introductory courses who were not exposed to women role models in the field.

“Our results show that role model intervention had a significant impact on all outcomes for female students,” said report co-author Danila Serra, an associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University. “Being in a class that received the role model visits increased the likelihood that a female student would major in economics by almost 100 percent. The probability of them taking intermediate or any other economics classes also increased by large margins.”

“Due to historical gender imbalances in some subjects, such as economics, it is difficult for young women to come into direct contact with successful women who have majored in these fields and who can inspire them to do the same,” said report co-author, Catherine Porter, of Lancaster University Management School. “Our study suggests that role model intervention could have a significant impact on the treated women’s lifetime income streams.”

The full study, “Gender Differences in the Choice of Major: The Importance of Female Role Models,” was published on the website of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. It may be downloaded by clicking here.

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