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Comfort Levels in Social Groups

I looked at our results concerning the effects of research group dynamics, whether women felt they had a voice in those groups, and if this affected whether they reported being happy in grad school, as well as whether they considered leaving their grad programs.

We found a strong, but not surprising, correlation between whether women reported being happy in grad school, and whether they felt their voice was valued in their group meetings.

46 of the 47 women who were happy said they also felt that group dynamics were such that they had a voice.

We also found a strong correlation between the women who said they considered leaving, and who also felt that they couldn't voice their opinions in their group meetings.

Many of the free responses we received concerning group dynamics offered insights beyond our own personal experiences.

Some discouraging responses regarding gender

  • "Women with brains and opinions are not valued."
  • "It's very hard to voice my opinions in these meetings, since my male group members don't even listen to what I have to say."

Some universal issues:

  • "Sometimes I feel like the other members of the group know so much more than me and therefore do not wish to listen to what I have to say."
  • "I don't think that [my opinions will] be listened to by my advisor very often, but I can try, and I know the other students are listening."
  • "One reason is that English is my second language."

Positive responses:

  • "I'm in a great research group. The only female, but I feel completely accepted."
  • "Our group meetings are very open. My advisor is very encouraging and wants everyone to state their opinion."
  • "I'm the only [woman] in the lab but the guys are fabulously supportive of me and each other."

Most of the positive responses included remarks about supportive advisors, or group leads, and the importance each person's opinion held. Some of the most universal responses, I think, for men and women, were that some respondents felt they didn't know as much as the other group members, or were afraid to say something stupid.

The importance of encouraging women to enter and stay in the CS and EE fields is clear. But, simply bringing male/female ratio up to 50% is neither immediately feasible nor is it necessarily an appropriate solution to make students feel more comfortable in grad school or to improve group dynamics. The responses of our participants point to areas that can improve group dynamics and hopefully the happiness of grad students in their programs, as well as encourage individuals to stay. These areas include the importance of strong group leaders who encourage all participants to voice their opinions. For example, we need leaders who understand appropriate behavior and who are sensitive to individuals' needs, including avoiding derogatory remarks, an also understanding that language barriers play a strong role in some individuals' participation. These small steps will improve group dynamics for all graduate students, and are fairly easy to implement as an advisor, faculty member or group leader.

Some correlated data values:

  • Happy vs. voice are correlated at the .01 level with p = -.250. (spearman correlation).
  • Leave and voice correlated at the .05 level with p=.211. So, those who think of leaving also feel that they don't have a voice in their meetings.
  • There is no apparent correlation between happiness and the presence of regular grad groups or women's grad groups.

Remaining in school:

61% of our participants, when asked if they considered leaving grad school responded 'kinda' or 'yes'. The responses for staying were varied. Many cited work or not wanting to get 'programming jobs' as reasons to stay, or also the economy, and job security in grad school. More than three alluded to or stated directly that they stayed not because they wanted to, but because they felt they should, or they didn't want to quit. The idea of investing so much that you just can't quit now. None of those responses were particularly happy sounding ones.

More concrete examples regarding why people stayed include: funding, summer internships to break up the research cycle and help with the funding situation, enjoying their research or project, stubbornness, supportive friends, faculty (not necessarily advisors), mentors and staff,

Of the 71 responses to the "what helped you stay in school" question:

  • 53 were stubborn
  • 6 were resolved
  • 17 had no other options
  • 25 said friends
  • 27 said family

Comfort levels in school:

For the question, "Have you felt uncomfortable because of the male to female ratio in cs classes?", 25% had mix feelings, 19% said yes, and 56% said no.

Also, 67% of the students were comfortable with solo meetings with advisors while 32% felt uncomfortable.

For the question, "Do you feel supported in your choice of major?", 18% had mixed feelings, 73% said yes and 9% said no.