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NSF Supports Major's Gender Studies in STEM Job Embeddedness Theory

dmajor-debra-majorDebra Major

Embeddedness Theory for years has been used by workplace researchers to help explain why a person would stick with a particular employer. It may also hold keys to understanding why women frequently drop out of math-intensive majors in college and are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

That's the hypothesis of Old Dominion University industrial/organizational psychologist Debra Major, who for more than a decade has been conducting research into career barriers, especially for women and minorities. In February, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Major and her colleagues a three-year grant worth $525,000 for the project "Patching the STEM Pipeline Between College and Work: Investigating Gender Issues in Embeddedness."

"The proposed research is novel in that it will extend the application of the Embeddedness Theory to the educational experience prior to workforce entry and demonstrate linkages between college and workforce embeddedness experiences," Major said.

A professor in the Department of Psychology of ODU's College of Sciences, Major has had continuous NSF funding since 2002 for her research into why women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM majors in college and in STEM careers. This award brings her NSF funding total to about $2.5 million. Her project team for the latest grant also includes two other psychology faculty members from ODU, associate professor Matt Henson, and assistant professor Konstantin Cigularov, as well as Valerie Morganson, an alumna of the industrial/organizational psychology doctoral program.

Job embeddedness, as it has evolved as a theory, explains employee retention in terms far broader than job satisfaction. It considers an array of influences on an employee's decision whether to stay with a firm. These do include job satisfaction, as well as bonds with co-workers, confidence in skills to do the job, opportunity for advancement and other work-related pluses or minuses. But the theory extends, as well, to family and social reasons why a worker would want to stay or quit.

To designate a worker as embedded - and likely to stay - in his or her job, researchers would want to hear comments from the worker such as these: I feel like I am a good match for my organization; I interact frequently on the job with my co-workers; I interact frequently outside the workplace with my co-workers; I am active in one or more community organizations; I really love the place that I live; I have family roots in the area where I live.

In other words, an embedded worker believes he or she reaps significant benefits on and off the job from staying with a firm, and would suffer a diminished quality of life from leaving.

Major said her research team defines embeddedness in terms of 1) "fit," which is the extent to which a person describes his or her capabilities as matching the demands of a particular STEM field; 2) "links," which are social ties the person has within the field; and 3) "sacrifice," which is the extent to which leaving a STEM field would come at a high cost.

The project will question students and early careerists in terms of human capital and social capital. The former involves the acquisition of knowledge and skills, and the latter involves the development of interpersonal relationships and networking.

"We will be employing multiple quantitative and qualitative research methods in addressing three primary research questions: testing a STEM university embeddedness model, studying embeddedness in the college-to-work transition, and making a longitudinal qualitative assessment of college-to-work transition," Major said.

"The project contributes to the literature on gender differences in STEM by taking a broad, contextual view of the experiences that may differentially anchor men and women to STEM majors and occupations. In particular, Embeddedness Theory offers explanations beyond abilities and attitudes, which seem inadequate in explaining women's underrepresentation in STEM fields."

Major predicts that the team's findings will identify gender differences in building social and human capital and transporting capital to embed individuals in their careers.

"In particular, this research will address a gap in the 'leaky pipeline' between college and work, an underresearched area where many women are likely to be leaked. We will help identify levers for anchoring STEM individuals, especially women, in their careers, at both the university and workforce stages."

The research should help universities to adjust curricula and firms to make organizational moves to promote gender diversity, Major added.

This latest research grant for Major follows her election last year to Fellow status in three prominent organizations, the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She also received the ODU College of Sciences Distinguished Teaching Award for 2012, after having won the college's Distinguished Research Award in 2010.

She joined ODU as an assistant professor in 1992 soon after receiving a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from Michigan State University. She became an associate professor in 1998 and a full professor in 2005.