Developmental Stage

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Understanding and remedying women’s underrepresentation in majority-male fields and occupations require the recognition of a lesser-known form of cultural bias called masculine defaults. Masculine defaults exist when aspects of a culture value, reward, or regard as standard, normal, neutral, or necessary characteristics or behaviors associated with the male gender role. Although feminist theorists have previously described and analyzed masculine defaults (e.g., Bem, 1984; de Beauvoir, 1953; Gilligan, 1982; Warren, 1977), here we define masculine defaults in more detail, distinguish them from more well-researched forms of bias, and describe how they contribute to women’s underrepresentation. We additionally discuss how to counteract masculine defaults and possible challenges to addressing them. Efforts to increase women’s participation in majority-male departments and companies would benefit from identifying and counteracting masculine defaults on multiple levels of organizational culture (i.e., ideas, institutional policies, interactions, individuals).

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Previous experiments have shown that college students benefit when they understand that challenges in the transition to college are common and improvable and, thus, that early struggles need not portend a permanent lack of belonging or potential. Could such an approach—called a lay theory intervention—be effective before college matriculation? The lay theory interventions raised first-year full-time college enrollment among students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds exiting a high-performing charter high school network or entering a public flagship university (experiments 1 and 2) and, at a selective private university, raised disadvantaged students’ cumulative first-year grade point average (experiment 3). These gains correspond to 31–40% reductions of the raw (unadjusted) institutional achievement gaps between students from disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged backgrounds at those institutions. Further, follow-up surveys suggest that the interventions improved disadvantaged students’ overall college experiences, promoting use of student support services and the development of friendship networks and mentor relationships.

The authors propose a cultural mismatch theory that identifies one source of the social class achievement gap between first-generation and continuing-generation college students. Four studies test the hypothesis that first-generation students underperform because interdependent norms from their mostly working-class backgrounds constitute a mismatch with middle-class independent norms prevalent in universities. First, surveys of university administrators revealed that American universities focus primarily on norms of independence. Second, a longitudinal survey revealed that universities' focus on independence does not match first-generation students' relatively interdependent motives for attending college and that this cultural mismatch is associated with lower grades. Finally, 2 experiments revealed that representing the university culture in terms of independence (i.e., paving one's own paths) rendered academic tasks difficult and, thereby, undermined first-generation students' performance. Conversely, representing the university culture in terms of interdependence (i.e., being part of a community) reduced this sense of difficulty and eliminated the performance gap without adverse consequences for continuing-generation students.