The researchers conducted a study, wherein they showed a group of advanced MSE undergraduates a gender balanced or unbalanced video depicting a potential MSE summer leadership conference.
With a view to assessing identity threat amongst the subjects, the researchers measured their physiological arousal during the video, cognitive vigilance, sense of belonging, and desire to participate in the conference.
It was found that women who watched the gender unbalanced video, in which men outnumbered women in a 3 to 1 ratio, experienced faster heart rates, higher sweating, and reported a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference.
The researchers also found that women were more vigilant to their physical environment when they watched the video in which women were outnumbered.
Murphy had planted cues related to Math, Science, and Engineering throughout the testing room, such as magazines like Science, Scientific American, and Nature on the coffee table and a portrait of Einstein and the periodic table on the walls.
The researchers say that women were able to recall more details about the video and the test room, indicating that they paid more attention to the identity-relevant items in order to assess the likelihood of encountering identity threat. "It would not be surprising if the general cognitive functioning of women in the threatening setting was inhibited because of this allocation of attention toward MSE-related cues," the authors write.
The researchers believe that this kind of attention allocation might interfere with performance, and help explain the performance gap between men and women in these fields. It was also found during the study that while males did not show any significant differences in physiological arousal, cognitive vigilance, or sense of belonging in either situation, both men and women expressed more desire to attend the conference when the ratio of men to women was balanced.
Although both men and women wanted to be where the women were, Murphy said that their motivations for wanting to be there were probably quite different.
"Women probably feel more identity-safe in the environment where there are more women- they feel that they really could belong there- while men might simply be attracted by the unusual number of women in these settings. Men just aren't used to seeing that many women in these settings, because the numbers in real Math, Science, and Engineering settings are so unbalanced," write the authors.
Murphy hopes that the new findings will "inspire greater motivation to attend to such cues when creating and modifying environments so that they may foster perceptions of identity safety rather than threat."
The study has been published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.