Who Do Women Count As Allies In STEM?

People’s prototype for who scientists are is perhaps made most apparent in what has become a classic social science classroom experiment in which students of all ages are asked to draw a scientist. What students produce overwhelmingly is an Einstein-esque caricature: an older White male with crazy hair holding a beaker1. These drawings in many ways reflect the current demographics of individuals pursuing degrees in, and working in, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The National Science Foundation’s reports consistently show that women and racial minorities are underrepresented in fields like computer science and engineering, with women making up only 18.1% and 22.8% of bachelor’s degrees in computer science and engineering in 2014, respectively2.

Social science research has demonstrated a number of reasons why progress to equal representation in these fields has been so limited, ranging from stereotypes about intelligence to blatant discrimination in hiring3,4. Additionally, women and racial minorities are vigilant to a broad range of subtle cues that they don’t belong in certain fields and they pick up on these subtle cues at a young age, demonstrated by their drawings of scientists that look nothing like them. These identity threatening cues signal to women and racial minorities that they may be devalued in these fields because of their stigmatized identities (i.e., woman, racial minority).

The accumulation of identity threat cues over time can ultimately diminish interest and motivation to pursue a career in the field, contributing to the “leaky pipeline,” a moniker for the persistent trend that despite a structured primary education in which students take a broad range of math and science courses, women and racial minorities become less and less present in these fields as they move from bachelor degrees, to graduate degrees, and upwards, leading to greater and greater gender and racial homogeneity in STEM fields5.

As the accumulation of identity threat cues can lead to the low representation of women and racial minorities in STEM, this ultimately limits the number of women and racial minorities who can serve as valuable role models to other young women and racial minorities. Specifically, social science research has repeatedly demonstrated the positive effect of female role models on undergraduate women in STEM. Even the mere exposure to a female scientist, such as reading her profile, can increase women’s interest in pursuing a STEM career6.

Similar findings have been found for racial minorities, such that African Americans don’t expect to be negatively stereotyped by an African American expert, resulting in improved performance on a cognitive test7. As such, role models serve as identity safety cues, signaling to stigmatized individuals that it is unlikely they will be devalued in the given context. Despite these promising findings, it is important to remember that one reason women, for example, are less likely to pursue STEM careers than men is because of identity threat cues, including there being few female role models. 

As such, it is important to identify other potential allies within STEM that may serve as identity safety cues and to identify individual factors that might promote women’s ideas of who can be an ally. Inspired by other social science research on intra-minority relations, specifically the attitudes and behaviors of one stigmatized social group (e.g., women) about other stigmatized social groups (e.g., racial minorities), my colleagues and I sought to examine white women’s perceptions of African and Asian American male STEM experts in comparison to perceptions of white male STEM experts.

Notably, our past research had demonstrated that white women anticipated being treated significantly more fairly at an organization which had received racial diversity awards compared to neutral awards, and more likely to experience gender discrimination from someone who held racist attitudes than someone who did not8,9. These findings were due, in part to, perceptions of intergroup attitudes as overlapping, such that people perceive racial and gender attitudes to be positively correlated. Specifically, people assume that if someone treats racial minorities fairly, then they will also treat women fairly, and if they are prejudiced against racial minorities, then they are also prejudiced against women. 

We proposed that this lay belief in overlapping intergroup attitudes could result in white women assuming that an African American man is unlikely to endorse negative stereotypes about women’s intelligence. Specifically, African Americans and women are both stereotyped as being unintelligent10, and as such, we expected that white women would assume an African American man is unlikely to endorse negative stereotypes about not only African Americans but also women. As such, we expected that white women would perceive an African American male expert as a more likely ally than a white man. However, given stereotypes that Asian Americans are highly intelligent11, we did not expect white women to perceive Asian American men as allies.

Across six experimental studies, we presented 1,120 self-identified white women with profiles of STEM experts and asked them how much they expected the expert to endorse negative stereotypes about women’s intelligence and then had participants complete a purported cognitive test that measured future career success developed by that expert. Our findings demonstrated that white women consistently anticipated an African American male STEM expert to be less likely to endorse negative stereotypes about women than a white or Asian American male STEM expert. Moreover, after exposure to the African American male STEM expert, white women performed significantly better on the cognitive test than when exposed to the white male STEM expert.

Additionally, we measured participants’ endorsement of stigma solidarity, the belief that women should work with other stigmatized groups in order to achieve equality. We anticipated that stigma solidarity would facilitate perceptions of African and Asian American male STEM experts as allies. Indeed, white women who endorsed stigma solidarity strongly were especially likely to perceive an African American male as a viable ally in comparison to the white male and were more also more likely to perceive an Asian American male expert as an ally.

We believe this research highlights a broader pool of role models for women in STEM, especially for women who strongly endorse stigma solidarity. These findings demonstrate that similarly stigmatized outgroup experts, such as African American men, are identified as potential allies by women, decreasing identity threat and increasing their cognitive performance. Additionally, it identifies a novel individual difference variable, stigma solidarity, that has important implications not only for women in STEM but for intra-minority relations more broadly. Stigma solidarity may play a critical role in advancing organizational diversity training programs and growing organizational affinity groups, as well as in promoting coalitions among social interest groups. 

Notably, it is important to note that our findings are not indicating that white or Asian American men are not allies for women. While our research suggests white women are more likely to see African American men as allies than white or Asian American men, allies’ identities and roles are multifaceted and complex. For example, other social psychological research has demonstrated that women of color are unlikely to see white women as allies unless they have demonstrated a commitment to diversity or talk about their own experiences with discrimination12. As such, white and Asian American men can certainly serve as allies by making efforts to engage in egalitarian behaviors. The role and importance of allies in promoting equality is a growing area in psychological research that will be critical in better understanding not only intra-minority relations but also intergroup relations more broadly.

Better understanding the role of allies is a positive step in the promotion of women and racial minorities in STEM. Ultimately, exposure to diverse scientists in classrooms, textbooks, and television will help ensure that students’ prototypical scientist isn’t only Einstein, but also Jane Goodall or Mae Jemison so that all burgeoning scientist can better see themselves in a lab jacket or astronaut suit. 

These findings are described in the article entitled We are in this together: How the presence of similarly stereotyped allies buffer against identity threat, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This work was conducted by Kimberly E. Chaney and Diana T. Sanchez at Rutgers University and Jessica D. Remedios at Tufts University.


  1. Yong, E. (2018, March). What we learn from 50 years of kids drawing scientists, The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/03/what-we-learn-from-50-years-of-asking-children-to-draw-scientists/556025/
  2. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2017. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/.
  3. Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(41), 16474-16479.
  4. Emerson, K. T., & Murphy, M. C. (2014). Identity threat at work: How social identity threat and situational cues contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in the workplace. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 20(4), 508–520.
  5. Dasgupta, N., & Stout, J. G. (2014). Girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: STEMing the tide and broadening participation in STEM careers. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences1(1), 21-29.
  6. Stout, J. G., Dasgupta, N., Hunsinger, M., & McManus, M. A. (2011). STEMing the tide: Using ingroup experts to inoculate women’s self-concept in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(2), 255–270.
  7. Wout, D. A., Shih, M. J., Jackson, J. S., & Sellers, R. M. (2009). Targets as perceivers: How people determine when they will be negatively stereotyped. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(2), 349–362.
  8. Chaney, K. E., Sanchez, D. T., & Remedios, J. D. (2016). Organizational identity safety cue transfers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(11), 1564–1576.
  9. Sanchez, D. T., Chaney, K. E., Manuel, S. K., Wilton, L. S., & Remedios, J. D. (2017). Stigma by prejudice transfer: Why racism threatens White women and sexism threatens men of color. Psychological Science, 28(4), 445–461.
  10. Fiske, S. T., Xu, J., Cuddy, A. C., & Glick, P. (1999). (Dis)respecting versus (dis)liking: Status and interdependence predict ambivalent stereotypes of competence and warmth. Journal of Social Issues, 55, 473–489.
  11. Zou, L. X., & Cheryan, S. (2017). Two axes of subordination: A new model of racial position. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(5), 696–717.
  12. Pietri, E. S., Johnson, I. R., & Ozgumus, E. (2018). One size may not fit all: Exploring how the intersection of race and gender and stigma consciousness predict effective identity-safe cues for Black women. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 74, 291–306.

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