Study highlights the importance of examining the unintended consequences of pro-diversity STEM interventions

A new study suggests that interventions aimed at increasing knowledge of gender bias in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) can make women feel like they don’t belong in such fields.

But the research, which appears in the journal Sex Roles, also uncovers some ways to mitigate the unintended negative consequences of pro-diversity interventions.

“Biases favoring men over women is one factor that may lead to the disparity of women in STEM. Because raising awareness of gender bias in STEM is a critical first step in addressing it, my co-authors and I have created new and easy-to-administer interventions to help make people aware that gender bias is an issue,” explained study author Evava S. Pietri, an assistant professor at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis.

The diversity intervention — called Video Interventions for Diversity in STEM (VIDS) — uses short videos to explain the empirical evidence of gender bias. Previous research indicates that the videos increase knowledge about gender inequity and tend to decrease sexist attitudes.

“However, we were concerned this information might be threatening to women and harm their belonging in STEM environments. Thus, we thought it was very important to test this possibility and develop techniques for alleviating this potential threat,” Pietri said.

For their new study, the researchers conducted three experiments to examine the unintended consequences of the videos and how to alleviate them. The three experiments included 585 men and women recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, another 508 women recruited from Mechanical Turk, and 102 female scientists recruited from a conference on teaching science.

In line with their previous studies, Pietri and her colleagues found that participants who watched VIDS tended to score lower on a measure of sexism than those who watched clips from a science documentary and those who watched no video.

But the VIDS intervention also appeared to increase women’s concerns about fitting in. Women who watched VIDS were more likely to believe they would experience less belonging and trust at a STEM company.

“When creating any new intervention to address biases in STEM (or other contexts), it is important to carefully evaluate its effectiveness. Even if an intervention has the desired outcomes, it may also have unintended consequences that need to be addressed/fixed,” Pietri told PsyPost.

But the researchers also found evidence that this side-effect could be mitigated. Reading about women who faced sexism but still enjoyed their STEM jobs and reading about a successful female biomedical scientist who was the head of a prominent research team helped alleviate the social identity threat that women experienced.

“Although my co-authors and I found that our interventions harmed women’s belonging in STEM, we also identified multiple strategies to protect belonging. We would not have figured out solutions had we not explored possible unintentional adverse outcomes,” Pietri said.

The long-term effects of VIDS, however, is still unclear.

“We did not examine how long our effects persisted. It is possible that these diversity interventions only initially may harm belonging, but after a few hours belonging may return to normal levels. This will be an important question for future research,” Pietri said.

“I do not want to suggest that individuals should avoid using diversity interventions that raise awareness of gender bias. Rather, they should use additional strategies to make sure these interventions do not decrease women’s belonging,” she added.

“Although we found that these interventions harmed women’s belonging, we also established techniques to mitigate this harm. Ideally, these interventions would help reduce biases over time and create more welcoming environments for women in STEM, ultimately enhancing their belonging. ”

The study, “Addressing Unintended Consequences of Gender Diversity Interventions on Women’s Sense of Belonging in STEM“, was authored by Evava S. Pietri, Erin P. Hennes, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, April H. Bailey, Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, and Jo Handelsman.