Diversity and Democracy

Adjusting Micromessages to Improve Equity in STEM

According to a recent report from Change the Equation, employer demand for skilled science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers is at its highest in many years. Yet the United States is currently ranked twenty-seventh in the world for producing STEM college graduates, and US students' interest and academic performance in STEM fields remain weak (Change the Equation 2012). To meet workforce needs, it is thus critical to engage and excite more students in STEM disciplines.

With racial and ethnic minority populations projected to expand substantially over the coming decades, recruiting more people from these traditionally underrepresented groups will be crucial to meeting the demand for qualified STEM workers (Center for Public Education 2012). Equally essential will be the increased involvement of women, who remain underrepresented in many STEM fields. Yet over the past decade, significant ground has been lost in women's graduation rates in STEM programs at community colleges (Institute for Women's Policy Research 2012). Four-year institutions have also made poor progress in increasing gender equity in STEM (DeAngelo et al. 2011).

Given the acute need to increase and diversify participation in the STEM professions, what can educators do to encourage historically underrepresented students to pursue STEM fields? This is among the questions the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) is asking as it works to ensure access, equity, and diversity in secondary and postsecondary education.

The Impact of Micromessages

In 2007, the National Science Foundation awarded the NAPE Education Foundation a grant to work with state and local educational agencies in twelve states to increase women's participation in nontraditional fields. This grant funded the creation of a STEM Equity Pipeline program and led to the national implementation of the Program Improvement Process for Equity in STEM (PIPE-STEM), a "data-driven decision-making institutional change process focused on increasing the participation, completion, and transition of females and other underrepresented groups in STEM-related programs of study" (NAPE 2013). More than fifty secondary schools and community colleges have implemented the PIPE-STEM model, with resulting increases in female participation rates in STEM programs often exceeding ten percentage points.

Through PIPE-STEM, NAPE has identified a critical but insufficiently addressed phenomenon: the communication of unconscious beliefs or implicit biases that, despite educators' best intentions, can discourage underrepresented students from pursuing STEM courses and careers. Many teachers and faculty are unaware that through conscious and unconscious words and actions, they are delivering micromessages along with course content. Bernice Sandler claimed that facial expressions, gestures, words, or tone of voice can convey perceived differences related to characteristics like gender, race, ethnicity, and economic status (1986). Accumulated over time, these micromessages can affect students' self-concept or self-efficacy (Rowe 1990), critically influencing career choice (Bandura 1997).

Mary Rowe describes negative micromessages or microinequities as "apparently small events…frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator…that occur wherever people are perceived to be 'different'" (1990, 2). For example, when a faculty member supervising laboratory experiments assigns the role of note-taker to female students, he or she may subtly imply that women are more capable as scribes than as scientists. Rowe demonstrated that microinequities, when accumulated over time, can damage individuals' self-esteem and self-efficacy, and consequently their performance or decision making in the workplace or classroom.

In contrast, microaffirmations—the "tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening"—provide opportunities to counteract microinequities and build self-esteem (Rowe 2008, 4). When consistently practiced, microaffirmations can lead to more confident students and a better classroom climate for all. A recent publication by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Why So Few? (2010), supports the importance of microaffirmations by highlighting research on the factors that influence women's decisions to enter and remain in STEM courses, programs, and careers. The report calls attention to the need to create classroom and workplace environments that encourage the participation of women and girls.

Connecting the work of Sandler, Rowe, and AAUW, NAPE created the Culture Wheel model (Figure 1) to advance an understanding of how culture, micromessages, student self-efficacy, and STEM course and career behaviors interact. NAPE is now applying this understanding to improve classroom environments.

Figure 1. NAPE Culture Wheel


Reach and Teach Every Student

From 2009 to 2011, NAPE led a team of equity and STEM experts, researchers, and practitioners in creating a new professional development program, Micromessaging to Reach and Teach Every Student™. Developed using the lenses of gender, race, ethnicity, and culture, the program provides secondary and postsecondary educators with research-based strategies and effective resources to address each student's unique needs. Gender equity training initially developed in Dallas, Texas, provided the program's foundation, which has also integrated the PIPE-STEM model.

The year-long, interactive program focuses on the domains over which educators have control—the learning environment, curriculum, and instruction—as well as on instructors' own behavior. Through seven units (thirty hours) of instruction, a professional learning community of peers, and access to STEM and equity experts, the program works to change unintended negative practices and create more supportive educational environments. Topics addressed include micromessages and their impact on student success, how to use microaffirmations to improve student outcomes, fixed versus growth mindset, attribution theory, stereotype threat, self-efficacy, multicultural awareness, intersectionality, equitable learning environments, and STEM career opportunities. As participants learn about these topics, they work to transform their classrooms.

Early data from the Dallas pilot suggest promising outcomes. In 2009 and 2010, both boys and girls taught by teachers receiving the training had higher pass rates on their Advanced Placement physics exams (3.8 times for girls and 2.6 times for boys) than students taught by teachers who did not receive the training.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, NAPE launched the Micromessaging program in 2012 with STEM faculty at the Community College of Baltimore County (Maryland). Participating faculty have implemented new strategies to change the classroom climate, including career awareness presentations, more authentic assessments, improved engagement and cohort building activities, and innovative uses of technology. Assessments conducted before and after the first semester of the program indicate improvements in individual participants' student grades and awareness of STEM careers, as well as increased student retention and completion rates. NAPE is currently analyzing the program's aggregate impact.


Changing classroom culture requires awareness of that culture and the myriad of micromessages that circulate within it. NAPE believes that with time, research-based knowledge, personal awareness, and strong support, teachers can address their implicit biases and develop communication strategies that encourage every student to succeed in STEM courses, programs, and careers. To learn more, visit http://www.napequity.org/professional-development/.


AAUW. 2010. Why So Few? Washington, DC: AAUW. http://www.aauw.org/learn/research/whysofew.cfm.

Bandura, Albert. 1997. Self-efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman.

Center for Public Education. 2012. "The United States of Education: The Changing Demographics of the United States and Their Schools." http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/You-May-Also-Be-Interested-In-landing-page-level/Organizing-a-School-YMABI/The-United-States-of-education-The-changing-demographics-of-the-United-States-and-their-schools.html.

Change the Equation. 2012. "Help Wanted: Demand for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Weathers the Storm." Vital Signs: Reports on the Conditions of STEM Learning in the US. http://changetheequation.org/sites/default/files/CTEq_VitalSigns_Supply (2).pdf.

DeAngelo, Linda, Ray Franke, Sylvia Hurtado, John H. Pryor, and Serge Tran. 2011. Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute. http://heri.ucla.edu/DARCU/CompletingCollege2011.pdf.

Institute for Women's Policy Research. 2012. Increasing Opportunities for Low-Income Women and Student Parents in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math at Community Colleges. Washington, DC: Institute for Women's Policy Research. http://www.iwpr.org/initiatives/student-parent-success-initiative/increasing-opportunities-for-low-income-women-and-student-parents-in-science-technology-engineering-and-math-at-community-colleges.

National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity. 2013. "PIPE-STEM." http://www.napequity.org/professional-development/curriculum-tools/program-improvement-process-equity/.

Rowe, Mary P. 1990. "Barriers to Equality: The Power of Subtle Discrimination to Maintain Unequal Opportunity." Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal 3 (2): 153–63. http://www.stemequitypipeline.org/_documents/Rowe-Article-Long.pdf.

———. 2008. "Micro-affirmations and Micro-inequities." http://www.stemequitypipeline.org/_documents/Rowe-micro-affirmation.pdf.

Sandler, Bernice. 1986. The Campus Climate Revisited: Chilly for Women Faculty, Administrators, and Graduate Students. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Claudia Morrell is chief operating officer at the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity, and Carolyn Parker is assistant professor of STEM education at Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

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