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Certain Numbers

Having a critical mass of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields may spur even more women to enter those fields and, perhaps, overcome the gender gap there, NPR's Shankar Vedantam reports.

Rather than chalking the low numbers of women in STEM fields to differences in ability or interest, Nilanjana Dasgupta, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says it's likely due to a sense of not belonging.

"The prototype of success in tech is very male, so I think those stereotypes get in the way of women feeling that this is the field for them," Dasgupta tells Vedantam.

Dasgupta performed a study in which female engineering students were invited to join workgroups that were working on various problems. Each workgroup had four members, but three of the members were actually researchers and one was the volunteer. Dasgupta also varied whether the volunteer was the only woman in the group, was one of two women, or whether she was one of three women.

From this, she found that when the volunteer was part of a group that was half women or more, she felt more confident in her engineering ability and was more interested in pursuing an engineering career.

But as Vedantam points out, none of the volunteers in the study thought that group affected her behavior. "Every woman who was a volunteer said their participation was shaped only by their own knowledge and by their own interest. In reality, we know this is not the case," he says. "The behavior of the volunteers was shaped significantly by their groups."

This, he says, suggests that tech and related companies might want to have a critical mass of women within their workgroups.