Feds Give University of Michigan $500,000 to Watch for Male Students Committing Microaggressions

Is sexism driving away female engineers? Can this study possibly tell?



The University of Michigan is conducting a study on male engineering students to determine whether their unconscious biases—microaggressions—are driving women out of the field. The study is funded via the National Science Foundation, which means taxpayers coughed up more than $500,000 for it. 

Men are more likely than women to go into engineering, and researchers want to know if sexism plays a role in that. This study involves male engineering students being recorded while they interact with their female counterparts. Researchers will then watch the tapes and make a note of any microaggressions. 

From the abstract, courtesy of The Washington Free Beacon's Elizabeth Harrington

The goal of Study One is to identify the specific types of microaggressions (e.g., ignoring women's contributions or assigning women to less important tasks) occurring in videotaped laboratory-based engineering teams. Researchers will develop a reliable microaggressions assessment procedure, and will analyze effects on engineering outcomes (learning, performance, and persistence). In Study Two, the lab-based data will be supplemented with qualitative data reported by students who previously participated in an engineering student group project, via student focus groups. Study Three will examine the influence of microaggressions occurring in class-based teams on engineering outcomes over time. 

The issue that I see is this: microaggressions are inherently subjective. Something that offends one person might not bother another at all. Furthermore, how will researchers be able to tell whether a woman is being assigned a "less important task" because she is a woman and the male engineer a sexist? I'm sure that happens—there are sexist engineers, certainly—but it's probably sometimes the case that a person is assigned a less important task because she—or he—is best qualified for that task. 

[Related: This University of Oregon Study on Feminizing Glaciers Might Make You Root for Trump]