The Importance of Communal Opportunities in Science


Amanda Diekman

The question of why people enter into and persist in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is particularly relevant for women, because women are more likely than men to leave the STEM career path at every stage.1 Indeed, an analysis by the National Research Council found the greatest female attrition at the stage between receiving a doctoral degree in biology and chemistry and entering a research-intensive tenureline position.2 Many factors contribute to this gender gap, including gender socialization and subtle messages that women do not “fit” in science. What is abundantly clear, however, is that women have the ability and achievement orientation to engage in the highest levels of science.

To answer the question of why women continue to opt out of STEM, even though gender gaps in skill performance have closed, my lab turned to thinking about motivation, in particular the motivation to work with and help others. Communicating how science includes opportunities to work with and to help others is key to recruiting women (and other communally oriented individuals) into the STEM pathway and keeping them there.

The website offers narratives about why graduate students persist through challenges. Again and again, what comes through in these stories is the idea that students stay in school because they believe that their work will ultimately make a positive difference in the world. For example, Casey says, “I am studying how cells remodel their composition in cancer so we can develop more effective cancer therapeutics with less harmful side effects.” These stories are compelling: They challenge stereotypes about what science is and about who scientists are.

Stereotypes about Science and Scientists

Science and technology improve daily life for so many, and yet there are robust and consensual stereotypes that STEM fields do not offer opportunities to work with other people or to help other people.3 Scientists are often perceived and portrayed as acting alone, immersed in intellectual puzzles that have no bearing on others’ lives. “Scientists are often perceived and portrayed as acting alone, immersed in intellectual puzzles that have no bearing on others’ lives.”This “lone wolf ” stereotype contrasts with the high value that people generally accord to communal goals, and so these stereotypic beliefs can be a deterrent to engagement in STEM. In particular, members of underrepresented groups (women, first-generation students, underrepresented minority group members) often especially value communal goals.3,4 Highlighting communal opportunities within STEM can especially foster the inclusion of these individuals.5,6,7

The belief that communal goals can be met in STEM aligns with more positive attitudes toward engaging in STEM: People who think that they can work with or help others in science see themselves as more likely to enjoy, succeed, and be interested in a science career. Even brief narratives about a scientist who collaborates with others or values the altruistic potential for science can shift beliefs toward seeing more communal content in STEM.6 Again and again, across multiple methods and samples, greater positivity toward STEM is associated with the perception of more communal opportunities in STEM.

How Can We Disrupt These Stereotypic Processes?

The good news for science educators and practitioners is that you can work to emphasize the more communal aspects of STEM, and there may be benefits both to you and to others in doing so. Although every career is different, almost all roles offer some opportunity to work with others or to help others either directly or indirectly. Sometimes these communal aspects are not perceived as integral to science itself, but collaboration and engagement are essential for any scientist to succeed. Highlighting to yourself and to others the ways in which your work includes collaboration and altruism, and valuing these aspects of the scientific process, can both heighten motivation to continue and open the doors to STEM to a broader range of people.

The key question then is how can educators cultivate these beliefs? One strategy is to incorporate into your classes assignments or activities that let students and employees work with each other on projects that directly serve the community. In one example, the new Electronics and Computing Service Scholars program at Miami University will engage students in a living/learning community and coursework focused on developing engineering skills for the purpose of helping the community. A second strategy is to offer even brief examples of how a specific scientific construct can benefit the broader world. Such questions about application are often saved for advanced seminars when in fact some knowledge of the possible uses of the constructs being learned might give some students the motivation to persist and excel in foundational courses.

Another strategy is to use real-life or media role models to show that scientists engage in communal activities. A great example of directly challenging stereotypic beliefs about “the lone scientist” is the WICB Photo Montage, where women in cell biology upload pictures of themselves with their families or friends. Changing the images of scientists to include people with social relationships is an important step in disrupting stereotypic expectations.

Emphasizing communal opportunities in science can provide an opportunity to open the doors more broadly without shutting others out. In our data, majority group members do not dislike science more when communal aspects are highlighted; their positivity toward science is similar whether science is portrayed as enacted independently or collaboratively. Especially important is that science does not seem less rigorous—the challenges that so many scientists love are still there, but there is a clearer sense of purpose in tackling those challenges.

“Even if STEM fields are not currently practiced in ways that highlight communal opportunities, they can be….”Some people ask whether it’s just true that STEM fields naturally offer fewer opportunities than law, education, or healthcare to work with or help others. Even if STEM fields are not currently practiced in ways that highlight communal opportunities, they can be: Collaboration is a cornerstone of science, and the altruistic aspects of science exist in both mentorship and teaching, as well as forming foundations for solving problems in medicine, sustainability, and inequality. In addition, cross-cultural comparisons show variability in these beliefs: Respondents from China and India tend to perceive science and engineering as affording communal goals, and these beliefs in turn predict more positivity.8

Finally, just as the “lone scientist” is not the only story about scientists, the communal motive is not the only story about women. Women (like men) engage with science for a wide range of important reasons, including achievement, problem-solving, and working independently. Integrating communal processes in science does not mean excluding other motivations or denying their importance to women. Doing that is a disservice to science, scientists, women, and men. The goal is not simply to package science in a way that appeals to a stereotypic view of women; the goal is to highlight the many ways in which science offers opportunities to work with and help people, goals that are important to both women and men.


1Diekman AB, Weisgram ES, Belanger AL (2015). New routes to recruiting and retaining women in STEM: Policy implications of a communal goal congruity perspective. Social Issues and Policy Review 9, 52–88.

2National Research Council (2010). Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

3Diekman AB, Brown ER, Johnston AM, Clark EK (2010). Seeking congruity between goals and roles: A new look at why women opt out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Psychological Science 21, 1051–1057.

4Smith JL, Cech E, Metz A, Huntoon M, Moyer C (2014). Giving back or giving up: Native American student experiences in science and engineering. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 20, 413–429.

5Brown ER, Smith JL, Thoman DB, Allen JM, Muragishi G (2015). From bench to bedside: A communal utility value intervention to enhance students’ biomedical science motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology. edu0000033.

6Diekman AB, Clark EK, Johnston AM, Brown ER, Steinberg M (2011). Malleability in communal goals and beliefs influences attraction to STEM careers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101, 902–918.

7Thoman DB, Brown ER, Mason AZ, Harmsen AG, Smith JL (2015). The role of altruistic values in motivating underrepresented minority students for biomedicine. BioScience 65, 183–188.

8Brown ER, Steinberg M, Lu Y, Diekman AB (in preparation). Is the “lone scientist” an American dream? Communal opportunities in science and engineering help close US–Asia gaps in positivity.

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