Shaping gender and STEM policy

Shaping Gender and STEM Policy at the UN

In the midst of an eventful spring semester, PBS professor Mary Murphy went to Buenos Aires to participate in a United Nations conference on gender equality in STEM disciplines.

Every 5-7 years, she explains, the U.N. revisits their policies and invites scholars to discuss their research and to interpret new data on policies to support women and girls in STEM fields across the globe, in academia and the workplace. By 2030 the U.N. aims to bridge the gender gap in STEM disciplines, holding conferences such as this one, “to look at evidence of what we know works, what kinds of policies have been adopted and what the outcome of those policies are.”

Murphy represented the United States as an expert in gender equity in STEM, giving a presentation on her research and engaging in policy discussions with scholars and policymakers from around the world. Her research has been central to understanding the dynamics of under-representation and the impact of negative stereotypes on women and girls in STEM. It has been cited in the Supreme Court, other legal institutions, and many other contexts to address the need to bridge the gender gap in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

Murphy has shown the cognitive and physiological effects of certain environmental cues and teaching practices, which can undermine girls’ and women’s ability to learn and their motivation to pursue STEM fields. She has also explored ways to remedy these effects by training teachers to convey the assumption that ability in STEM is not fixed, but a quality that can be developed. To encourage this mindset, Murphy has created interventions for faculty to change particular teaching practices.

The findings can be used and harnessed to make arguments for why a certain policy change is likely to have a positive effect on people’s lives.

Mary Murphy

Murphy came away from the conference exhilarated by the comprehensive global perspective. “It was really exciting to meet my counterparts,” she says, “who are doing this work in STEM from around the world—in such places as France, Italy, Finland, Sweden, the UK, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina.” She saw a shared trend among researchers “to focus on institutionalized structures and how we are communicating institutional messages and barriers.”

She was also struck by the progressive policies in some countries. The European Union, for example, requires that all EU countries put a plan in place to close the gender gap in STEM fields and to report on an annual basis whether the plan is having an effect. Some countries, like Sweden, on the leading edge of gender equity, have put in place a program in which federal funding for higher education is based on whether successful action has been taken. “It seems to have made a huge impact in terms of closing gaps,” she says.

What was perhaps gratifying above all was to see the visible impact research can have in the world: “You do the research because you want to understand the mechanisms that underlie important social problems, but the findings can be used and harnessed to make arguments for why a certain policy change is likely to have a positive effect on people’s lives.”