Communication Currents

Communication Currents

Developing Effective Women Role Models in STEM

May 13, 2020
General Communication Studies

There is a gap between women and men in STEM careers, particularly as researchers. Although women make up 48 percent of people enrolled in doctoral programs, many do not end up pursuing careers as researchers. UNESCO data indicate that only 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women. Representation of women as scientists is particularly important for encouraging young women to pursue scientific careers. In a new article published in NCA’s Communication Monographs, Kate T. Luong, Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, and Stefan Niewiesk use role congruity theory, social comparison theory, and role salience to understand how women veterinary students relate to representations of women researchers and how to create effective media role models.

Role Congruity Theory

Luong, Knobloch-Westerwick, and Niewiesk note that role congruity theory “posits that there is a perceived incongruity between the female gender role and the leadership role.” In other words, traditional gender expectations for women, such as being a caring homemaker, do not align with expectations for leadership roles, such as being strong and forceful, for example. The theory suggests that this incongruity for women resulted in women being perceived as unfit to be leaders or negatively evaluated when they take on such roles. Other research has suggested that people find feminine characteristics incongruous with the characteristics of a stereotypical scientist, and that young women are less likely to want to pursue a scientific career because they perceive themselves to be different from these stereotypical women scientists.

Social Comparison Theory

According to social comparison theory, people compare their abilities to others’ abilities. When people compare themselves to others, they may feel that they are performing better than their colleagues (downward comparison); this can help individuals to feel better about themselves. However, if someone feels that their colleague’s performance is better than theirs (upward comparison), then they will either be discouraged or inspired, depending on whether they think their colleague’s performance is within reach. Applications of this theory suggest that if, during upward comparison, women perceive that they are similar to successful women who hold counter-stereotypical roles, such as scientists, they can be inspired. For example, one study found that women who felt they were similar to women computer scientists did better on a math test. If women perceived that they are different from these successful women, they would feel discouraged and less likely to pursue the counter-stereotypical role – termed an upward comparison threat.

Role Salience

Luong, Knobloch-Westerwick, and Niewiesk also consider role salience, which refers to how important a role is to an individual; for example, a woman who thinks that having a family is important would have high family role salience. For those women, Luong, Knobloch-Westerwick, and Niewiesk hypothesized that seeing a professionally successful woman scientist who has a family would be more inspiring because they can relate more strongly to that individual if they feel that that level of success is attainable. Likewise, for women with low family role salience, a woman scientist who does not have a family and is professionally successful would be more inspiring if they feel that level of success is attainable.

The Study

Luong, Knobloch-Westerwick, and Niewiesk recruited about 180 women veterinary students to participate in the study. The participants first completed a survey about their family role salience, their interest in a research career, their GPA, and their demographic information. A few days later, they viewed a career fact sheet and career magazine articles about successful women scientists (role models). After viewing the materials, the participants answered a survey. The survey items measured how inspiring the role models were and how interested the participants were in a veterinary research career.

With the career fact sheet, Luong, Knobloch-Westerwick, and Niewiesk tested the difference between “high attainability” and “low attainability” messages. The “high attainability” messages were designed to inspire readers through the use of future tense, first-person language, and specific instructions about achieving a career goal. In contrast, the “low attainability” message used present tense and third-person language, and lacked specific instructions.

The magazine articles were designed to be “high congruity” or “low congruity” to stereotypical gender roles for women. The “high congruity” articles focused on the woman scientist’s marriage, children or plans to have children, and career. The “low congruity” articles focused on the woman scientist’s career, hobbies, and social life.

The results showed that the role models were inspirational. Contrary to the authors’ predictions, women who were not interested in having a family were more inspired by stories of women achieving in STEM who did have families; likewise, women who were interested in having families were more inspired by women who did not have families. Luong, Knobloch-Westerwick, and Niewiesk hypothesize that stronger relevance to a role model’s family situation may have resulted in an upward comparison threat; consequently, some participants may have felt discouraged instead of inspired. While the attainability message was able to make the less relevant role appear attainable, the attainability message was not able to overcome the upward comparison for the more relevant role.

Luong, Knobloch-Westerwick, and Niewiesk argue that this study has practical results. First, they point to the need to highlight perceived attainability in representations of role models. Second, representations of role models may also result in upward comparison threats, meaning that media creators may want to compensate for this possibility.

Luong, Knobloch-Westerwick, and Niewiesk also suggest particular messaging strategies. They suggest that transitional characters who improve their ability to balance careers and families over time may be more relatable to the audience.

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Kate T. Luong, Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick & Stefan Niewiesk (2020) “Superstars within reach: The role of perceived attainability and role congruity in media role models on women's social comparisons,” Communication Monographs, 87:1, 4-24, DOI: 10.1080/03637751.2019.1622143

About the author (s)

Kate T. Luong, M.A.

Ohio State University

Ph.D. candidate, School of Communication

Kate T. Luong

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, Ph.D.

Ohio State University

Professor, School of Communication

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick

Stefan Niewiesk

Ohio State University

DVM, PhD Diplomate ECLAM
Professor and Chair, College of Veterinary Medicine

Stefan Niewiesk