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Former fellow considers “lightweight interventions” and their impact on women’s careers

photo of Fisk seated before bookcase
Jan 27 2020

In Susan Fisk’s current sociology research, she has partnered with colleagues in computer science to look at how “lightweight interventions” can increase the number of women in computer science. In describing one such intervention – asking professors to email positive feedback to their students about their performance – the echoes of her experience at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research are unmistakable.

Fisk, now an assistant professor of sociology at Kent State University, was a graduate dissertation fellow at the Clayman Institute during 2014-15. It was the final year of her PhD program, and Fisk remembers the challenges of completing her degree, and the support she found in the community at the Clayman Institute. “Academia can be a punishing place; it beats you down,” she says. “Coming to a place where people are building you up is extraordinarily powerful.” 

“It’s funny how often people who study social interaction neglect to see its importance in their own lives,” she says. “My sense is that the more we can quantify how these things matter, the more likely we can get people to engage.”

Fisk’s research focuses on the interactive effects between two levels of gender bias in the workplace. The first level is well established, demonstrating that gender bias exists. In the second layer, women are aware of sexism and act in ways that make them less likely to experience bias, effectively confirming some gender stereotypes. Women’s decreased willingness to take risks and their tendency to self-assess lower than men are examples of what happens when women “know the gendered standards they’re being held to,” Fisk says. In 2019, she and John Overton published research in Social Psychology Quarterly titled “Who Wants to Lead? Anticipated Gender Discrimination Reduces Women’s Leadership Ambitions.”

In proposing the intervention with women students, Fisk says her colleagues in computer science questioned the idea: why would this positive reinforcement matter? Her results show that the intervention—which consisted of sending a singular positive email with additional performance feedback—increased women’s computer science persistence intention because it increased their self-assessed ability, while it had no effect on men’s persistence intentions. Indeed, changing the wording of a single email increased women's computer science persistence intentions by 18 percent. Fisk proposes that those improved self-assessments make it more likely the female students will persist in computer science, a field in which women historically are under-represented. She hopes the research will encourage large institutions concerned with gender equality that small interventions can “slowly but surely” make a difference.

Her results show that after receiving a positive email message from the professor, every student thought she had performed better in computer science. Fisk proposes that those improved self-assessments make it more likely the female students will persist in computer science.

Fisk jokes that she is a “recovering economist.” After earning a bachelor’s in economics and public policy, she worked as a strategy consultant and became interested in the gender dynamics at her firm. Though she didn’t observe much overt bias, there were few women leaders, and many women left the firm. She turned to sociology to explore such questions, and came to Stanford, where she studied with gender scholars Shelley Correll (former Clayman Institute director) and Cecilia Ridgeway, and was accepted to the GDF program at the Clayman Institute for her final year.

“The Clayman Institute has in so many ways been essential for my thinking about gender issues,” she says. In addition to providing opportunities to work with top people in the field, hear influential speakers, and write for Gender News, the Clayman Institute provided “a broad foundational knowledge of how gender works in the U.S.” Even beyond her time as a GDF, Fisk says, “over the years my involvement with the Institute is foundational to my understanding of these issues.” 

In addition to a grounding in gender scholarship and a supportive community, Fisk says, “I got a lot of training in how to actually succeed in academia,” through sessions on negotiation, having difficult conversations, and responding
 strategically to the many demands on your time.

The assistant professor offers her own thoughts for young scholars. First, she says, ask for advice, and ask multiple people, as some won’t admit what they don’t know. Second, try to know yourself and what will make you happy. Going straight through school works for some but not all. Flexibility is important as well. “Many lives could make you happy – try to not get too attached to one of those lives.” Finally, Fisk advises taking care of yourself, of making time for a balanced life with good health and relationships. “It’s easy to burn out or make yourself sick. Your career is a marathon – set yourself up to be able to continue doing what you want to do.”

As for herself, Fisk has embraced life at a large public university. Kent State is economically diverse, with half the population first-generation college students. “I like working with students I can actually help,” she says. “I take a lot of meaning in the fact that I can help my students be upwardly mobile.” It seems she is now on the giving end of the kind of encouragement she researches, and that she remembers from her time at the Clayman Institute.

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