Muchin Bazan: Empowering women to pursue STEM
The following story was written in April 2021 by Valerie Tran in ENGL 4824: Science Writing as part of a collaboration between the English department and the Center for Communicating Science.
Boys are encouraged to take risks, to be confident, to aim high. Girls are taught to be polite and accommodating.
These societal norms and biases can stick mercilessly with girls for years, says Virginia Tech researcher Muchin Bazan. According to LinkedIn behavioral data, for example, women feel they need to meet 100 percent of the criteria to apply for a job while men usually apply if they feel they meet about 60 percent.
To alleviate this gap, Bazan says, women need to be empowered to be bold and assertive about their dreams. Young girls wanting to be doctors, engineers, and scientists need role models they can see themselves in, she says.
During her senior year of high school in Peru, Bazan, now a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the economics department, had to decide what to do with her life. She was going to university in a year and had to choose what she wanted to study. Bazan turned toward the role models in her own life.
“My parents wanted me to study medicine because my mother studied medicine, but I didn't like that,” she says. “My father is an engineer, but I did not choose engineering. I chose economics.”
Her own decision to steer clear of medicine and engineering would later empower other girls in her position to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.
Bazan studies the effects of exposure to role models on female students' preference to pursue STEM fields. This research is important because there are gender disparities in STEM field participation—and those disparities contribute to gender-based inequalities in wealth.
“We need women in the field who can empower other women by reaching out to them and talking to them about STEM,” says Bazan. “This doesn't mean that we need to push all girls into science. We need to let them choose, but they need to have all the information in their hands before deciding what career they want.”
Bazan is particularly well acquainted with the situation in her home country, Peru.
“In Peru there is a lack of confidence in women that leads to discrimination,” she says. “[There are] gender stereotypes that somehow women are not good in STEM fields. This is a misconception that we need to eliminate through intervention,” she explains. The efficacy of such interventions is what she is studying in her research.
Bazan’s research group is composed of Marcos Agurto, Siddharth Hari, Sudipta Sarangi, and herself. Sarangi is the department head and professor of economics at Virginia Tech. Agurto is a professor at the Department of Economics and the vice president for research at Universidad de Piura in Peru. Hari is an economist at the World Bank.
Together they randomly selected 109 high schools in Peru. Half of the schools provided students with a presentation on engineering and STEM fields by a female student enrolled in an engineering program at an elite private university in Peru. The other half of the high schools had no presentations of this nature. Afterward, the research team implemented a follow-up survey in all 109 schools to measure the students’ interest in pursuing STEM.
The implemented intervention trial resulted in an increase of 14 percent in students’ preference for engineering programs. The presentations had the strongest effect on high-ability girls but also inspired low-ability boys. The presentations were not targeted to female students, and the speaker did not introduce gender bias in the presentation.
“Our framing was that anyone who wants to become an engineer can, [that] engineering is a way of solving problems, and you don't need to be a genius in math to become an engineer,” explains Bazan. “This was our way of pushing them, inspiring them to choose engineering if they liked the field.”
Even though Bazan’s research already contributes to solving difficult social problems, she knows there is more research to be done. Other variables may affect the students. Presenters in the initial study were limited to female graduate students from Bazan’s undergraduate university, but she hopes to extend this research to test the effects of role models with different backgrounds and even male role models. This research will further help Peruvian society, she says.
With parents who both pursued STEM fields, Bazan recognizes that having role models is just one factor. But she doesn’t regret her own choice not to study engineering.
“I just wanted to help others and to contribute to society, and I found that by studying economics you can solve social problems,” she says.
Her choice not to study engineering has allowed her to contribute to the world in other ways that intersect with STEM fields.
“After doing this project, I figured out that it was a good choice because I’m working on interventions that can help,” she explains. “We need to empower women because this will reduce gender disparities.”
Bazan has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Universidad de Piura and a master’s of science degree in economics from the University of Warwick. She is currently working as a research assistant for Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Development in the Center of Gerontology.
Not many countries are doing role model interventions to increase women's preferences to enroll in STEM fields, but Bazan believes that this is one way to empower women and that her research has important policy implications. Most of all, she hopes that the interventions ignite a spark for future female doctors, engineers, and scientists