As is typical for December, my work focus has shifted to research. One of my current projects has me reading three dozen articles on STEM diversity efforts in order to classify the kind of assessment they did. While it’s been interesting to see what people are doing, only a handful of them were surprising to me. Last night as I was finishing up the last of them, I discovered one that did surprise me and in a very good way.

The Role of Majority Groups in Diversity Programs presents information about a selective merit scholarship program for undergraduates majoring in engineering and IT who are committed to increasing the representation of women in those fields. The program includes men, although as a small minority, and the paper discusses differences in attitudes between men and women in the program and men and women not in the program. Some of the results are fairly obvious, given that the men recruited into the program are selected for their desire to improve gender equity in CSE. For example, men in the program were much more likely to agree that women have the right academic preparation, skills, and personality to be in engineering and technology. The men in the program were also much more likely to indicate that they would reach out for help if they encountered a problem with their studies, which means that the mentoring in the program is working.

But some of the reported results in the paper caught my attention. First, the program has the students taking gender studies classes, and particularly one on women and IT. One of the male students interviewed for the assessment commented as follows:

It’s very daunting [for women, not seeing many other women in classes]. . . . It’s like when I go in to my Gender and Women’s Studies class, I’m one of only two straight guys in there, there were two gay guys, but out of like 40–45 people, so it’s like, lots of women. . . . you feel like you don’t belong there, so like it’s if you’re interested in that, it’s sort of you feel like it can’t be helped.

This student is pointing out something both really obvious and incredibly profound: the fastest way to understand gender disparity is to have that disparity suddenly reversed. That a male undergraduate is the commenting on this out makes me happy. The article went on to discuss the way that students reported on the learning environment, stating:

Among scholar and nonscholar interviewees there was also a difference in how participants viewed the ordeal-style learning environment, with scholars, both men and women, more actively analyzing the situation and viewing it as potentially problematic to the environment and student progress, while nonscholars viewed it rather as just the way it is.

This also says that the program is doing a good job, in that students in the program are questioning the status quo because of the perceived impact. And last, but certainly not least, the article reported on a female student in the program who stated her views about how to improve the gender situation:

… as a man you can easily go through four years here and still leave thinking women are still less competent than you are…. But you know, I don’t think it makes a difference that I’m a girl, as long as the boys I’m studying with don’t devalue me because of that and understand that I’m just as valuable a contribution to the team … think it’s much better to educate men not to think that way [perjoratively towards women].

The argument that supportive men are crucial for changing the environment is by far the strongest one this article makes for including men in their scholarship program, something for which I’m sure they received (and possibly still receive) criticism. I certainly don’t think that using large amounts of scarce resources like scholarships intended to improve gender inequality on men is a good idea. But this article and program makes a great case that using some of the resources is useful for everyone.

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