Why Women Succeed

October 3, 2007

Note: The following article, written by Sally Hicks, first appeared in the Fall '07 issue of Gist from the Mill, a publication of the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University.

Women in ScienceWhen Nan Jokerst studied engineering in the 1980s, being a woman meant being surrounded by men. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, says Jokerst, the J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke.

“I had more dates than anybody. If you want to date a lot of people, go into engineering. There’s no competition,” she says.

Being in the minority didn’t hold her back socially -- or professionally. Jokerst got a master’s and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California, was on the faculty at Georgia Tech for 15 years and is the first woman to hold a named chair at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering.

What makes someone like Jokerst succeed in a male-dominated field such as engineering, while others fail or don’t even

try to break into the ranks? Duke psychologists Laura Smart Richman and Wendy Wood want to find out. With funding from a National Science Foundation grant, Richman and Wood are launching a study of successful women engineers at Duke and other universities in the Southeast to discover how they navigate their world.

Their overriding question: “What makes women excel in this profession, and what can we do to promote it?” Richman says.

It’s an ideal collaboration. Richman’s research focuses on how people react to perceived discrimination, Wood’s research addresses masculinity and femininity across cultures, and Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering is nationally known for success in recruiting and retaining female faculty.

“It struck me that, working together, we could do something very innovative,” says Wood, who is co-director of the Social

Science Research Institute. “This study is unique and well-suited to Duke,” says April Brown, senior associate dean for research at Pratt. “We have a reputation for being a good place for women.”

This success is one of former Pratt dean Kristina Johnson’s primary accomplishments in her eight years as leader of the school. Inspired by her friendship with Duke’s former women’s basketball coach Gail Goestenkors, Johnson created a coaching model in recruiting faculty, actively seeking out women engineers, improving the institutional climate so they want to stay and helping them advance through coaching and mentoring. Pratt has gone from having five women faculty in 1999 to 15 women faculty today, with some, like Brown, in key leadership positions.

“It really changed the culture and climate,” Brown says. “We’re on the cutting edge of that.”

These efforts have been supported by an NSF Challenge grant, which is designed to promote women in the sciences. Richman and Wood’s study is part of this larger grant.

Johnson is, of course, a prime example of a successful women engineer. This summer, she was named provost at The Johns Hopkins University. But the gains she has made will not end when she leaves, says Rob Clark, who is replacing her as dean for the next year.

“There’s overwhelming recognition for what [Johnson] has done in that regard,” he says. “But I truly believe we will sustain that. I believe the environment Kristina established will be one of the legacies here at the school.”

With the high number of successful women here, the Pratt School was fertile ground for Richman to collaborate with others to pursue her own research interest, which is how psychosocial factors affect health. She’s particularly interested in the psychological and physical consequences of perceived discrimination.

Researchers have found that people don’t necessarily have to experience overt discrimination in order for their minority status to affect them. One aspect of Richman’s work involves the study of how people cope with what’s called “stereotype threat,” which is the fear that their behavior may conform to a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong.

Stereotype threat can affect performance: Black students, for example, have been shown to do worse on SAT tests if they are asked beforehand to identify their race on a form. In addition, females in stereotype threat situations had increased heart rates and other physiological reactions.

The question in the women engineers study, of course, is how are the people who cope well with being in the minority different? Is it an internal mechanism that’s a characteristic of the individual? Or an external mechanism that’s related to the environment?

“Somehow these women who have been successful in these environments have figured out a way to overcome these obstacles that seem to stymie other people’s success,” Richman says. Some women may simply be less sensitive to being in a situation in which they are outnumbered by men, or they may not hold the view that women aren’t good at math and engineering. There also could be external factors, such as a supportive social environment or female role models and mentors, that mitigate discomfort, she says.

“Environmental cues make people feel a sense of inclusion or exclusion,” Richman says. In order to explore these issues, the Pratt school will host a conference in the spring that will bring in about 60 women engineers from throughout the Southeast. Before they arrive, they’ll fill out online surveys. At the conference, Richman and the research team will explore these issues in an experimental setting, and compare the results to that of equally successful women in less male-dominated fields to learn more about what helps these women cope.

“What is stressful and what is protective?” she says.

That’s a question that the engineering school also hopes to answer. They hope to help translate their success into a model that others can use. Jokerst says that faculty and administrator at the Pratt School have come up with successful techniques, including very intensive mentoring that starts, for some, at the undergraduate level. Jokerst says she talks to young women all the time about career options and even issues such as child rearing.

“It has been very informal so far, and we’re thinking of something more formal,” she says.

Brown says she has thought quite a bit about these questions in her career, but she’s looking for a more rigorous way of measuring her experiences.

“There’s a long period of denial that there are any issues at all. After some period, that goes away and you become aware of the issues,” she says. “And with awareness, you can think more about coping strategies. That’s something that hopefully this study will come up with.”