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Research Roundup: September 2021

The role of mentorship in closing the gender gap in academia, the impact of smartphones on student learning, and the “greening” of higher education.

The Link Between Female Role Models and Academic Success

Attracting and retaining women is a concern for many doctoral programs, especially those in scientific or statistical disciplines. Could providing all doctoral students with more female role models be an answer to encouraging more women to continue their doctoral studies?

A recent paper in PLOS One explores how exposure to female scholars affects the way both female and male students view their academic success—in other words, their self-efficacy. The paper’s authors, all scholars in political science, include doctoral student Shauna Gillooly and associate professor Heidi Hardt, both from the University of California, Irvine; and Amy Erica Smith, an associate professor at Iowa State University in Ames.

The authors looked at the impact of female role models on academic success in two ways. First, they examined how students respond when exposed to work by women cited in course syllabi. Academics often cite the work of male scholars far more often than that of female scholars, the authors point out. The authors speculate that female scholars might act as indirect role models to doctoral students through their cited studies.

However, the researchers found that gender-diverse syllabi had no effect on female students’ self-efficacy. Moreover, it reduced the self-efficacy of male doctoral students. This “backlash” might be explained by the fact that “members of dominant social identity groups tend to view outgroups’ gains in ‘zero-sum’ terms, implying in-group losses.”

Second, the co-authors looked at how doctoral students are affected when they have female role models and mentors in their programs. These mentors act as direct influences who guide the academic and career trajectories of students.

Female role models had a clear positive effect on students of both genders—but only for those students who viewed gender diversity as valuable. “Our results indicate that exposure to female role models correlates with students’ self-efficacy, but in ways shaped by students’ own experiences and views,” the authors write. “As departments hire more women and diversify syllabi, some students are likely to feel less secure about their academic prospects.”

For both studies, the authors surveyed 297 students from 50 doctoral programs in political science. They note that their findings would be relevant to other academic disciplines where women are underrepresented. For example, according to AACSB’s 2020 Business School Questionnaire, women represent only 41.5 percent of doctoral degrees conferred in business.

Is Online Learning Closing the Gender Gap?

In another exploration of gender equity and student learning, the online learning platform Coursera released its Women and Skills Report, which compares trends in enrollments and student performance prior to the pandemic to trends evident from the onset of the pandemic through June 2021. The company’s data show that women represented 52 percent of new learners on its platform in 2021, compared to 47 percent in 2019.

The report explains this surge by the fact that “as of February 2021, women accounted for the majority of the decrease in the U.S. labor force participation, despite making up less than half of the workforce.”


Even though women left the workforce in higher numbers during the pandemic, more women also pursued online learning, especially professional certificate programs preparing them for entry-level jobs in digital technologies.

The platform reports that it has seen more women enrolling in professional certificate programs preparing them for entry-level jobs in digital technologies—in 2021, women represented 43 percent of enrollment in these programs, compared to 27 percent in 2019. In addition, more women (49 percent) than men (38 percent) enrolled in courses taught by women instructors, which suggests that “instructor representation is one of the most important factors contributing to increases in women’s enrollments.”

Even though women left the workforce in large numbers during the pandemic, these findings are encouraging, says Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera CEO. He adds, “Women are embracing online learning to develop new skills that can help accelerate their return to work and promote economic mobility.”

Transparent Incentives Motivate Employee Performance

Financial incentives can be a good way for companies to motivate their employees—but only if companies are transparent about how those incentives are dispersed, according to a paper published in Accounting, Organizations and Society. It was authored by accounting professors Isabella Grabner of Vienna University of Economics and Business and Melissa Martin of the University of Illinois Chicago.

For their study on the effects of pay dispersion on employees, Grabner and Martin partnered with a healthcare provider with 8,000 employees and 450 clinics across the U.S. The pair found that financial incentives motivated better performance only when companies made the link between performance and earnings clear. This strategy could have a negative impact on performance if employees compared their earnings with co-workers and found that incentives were not fairly applied.

The takeaway for companies: Communicate clearly to employees the reasons for salary differences and minimize instances where those differences are not related to performance.

“Pay transparency can have consequences in cases where poor performers perceive high disparities in pay levels,” says Grabner. “However, it can also be an advantage for companies if it helps to give legitimacy to the compensation system and shows that individual incentives are well-deserved.”

Universities Support the World’s ‘Greening’

In its survey “Greening in European Higher Education Institutions,” the European University Association finds that the majority of responding institutions are deploying sustainable initiatives. Among the 305 institutions included in the survey, 64 percent reported campuswide initiatives. In addition, 18 percent described measures within individual departments or faculties, and 14 percent are considering adopting such measures in the future.

The survey measured the attention that Europe’s higher education institutions are placing on sustainability in a range of areas:

Student and faculty mobility. Many of those surveyed indicated that they would continue providing their communities with online learning and teleworking options, even after the danger of the pandemic had passed, as a way to reduce their institutions’ carbon footprints. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said that their schools were making the use of digital technologies a standard part of their programs. The remainder noted that the use of these technologies would be either incentivized or encouraged.

Curricula. The vast majority of institutions surveyed noted that they were integrating topics related to greening in their extracurricular activities (94 percent), undergraduate curricula (79 percent), graduate curricula (84 percent), electives (84 percent), and curricular reform (86 percent).


“Many higher education institutions are addressing environmental sustainability and greening as a matter of their own institutional values.”—Michael Gaebel, EUA Director of Higher Education Policy

Research and innovation. Among respondents, 74 percent have dedicated “living labs” to sustainability, and 74 percent also have taken steps to foster “green use of shared research infrastructures.” Seventy-three percent are providing incentives and funding for research and innovation activities focused on sustainability. While around three-quarters of responding institutions are working to reduce the environmental footprint of their labs and pose greening-related challenges to student entrepreneurs, less than 25 percent have dedicated policies for these activities.

Green campuses. Most respondents are placing a priority on recycling and waste management (93 percent), sustainable construction and renovation (90 percent), and energy and water conservation (92 percent).

More than a third of the institutions surveyed have a dedicated person on their leadership teams—usually a vice- or pro-rector—to steer the initiatives described above.

“The findings prove that many higher education institutions are working to green their own footprint and to contribute to society by working with a wide range of partners, from local communities to global university networks and industry,” says Michael Gaebel, EUA Director of Higher Education Policy and a co-author of the report. “The vast majority of institutions address environmental sustainability and greening as a matter of their own institutional values, with activities broadly framed by the [United Nations’] Sustainable Development Goals.” 

Although most institutions represented in the survey have made greening a priority, they face a range of challenges, such as a lack of funding, staff engagement, and strategic support. Sixty-four percent noted the importance of more government funding, while others pointed to collaborations across institutions and peer learning as other sources of support. One third of respondents would welcome a dedicated European initiative.

Proper Smartphone Use Has Positive Academic Impact

A new study published in Computers in Human Behavior finds that the appropriate use of smartphones in the classroom can improve students’ academic performance.

A survey of 10,000 college students was conducted by Yanqing Lin, Yong Liu, Wenjie Fan, and Virpi Kristiina Tuunainen, all from the department of information and service management at the Aalto University School of Business in Finland; and Shengli Deng from the Center for the Studies of Information Resources at Wuhan University in China.

They found that college students reported greater academic performance when they had access to mobile learning and news applications via their smartphones. The researchers note that learning also was enhanced by the fact that students were not distracted by the feeling of nomophobia—the fear of being technologically disconnected from their networks.


When students have access to mobile learning and news applications via their smartphones, their learning is enhanced by the fact that they are not distracted by the feeling of nomophobia—the fear of being technologically disconnected.

That said, the researchers found that students who expose themselves too much to entertainment-focused social media and apps will experience more nomophobia and disrupt their sleep habits. Both factors hinder academic performance, the co-authors note. To help students reap the most academic benefits from their smartphones, schools might want to inform them of these effects and encourage them to avoid smartphone use before going to sleep.

The study also revealed that if students are not provided a mobile learning platform by their university, they will often take the initiative to form groups on their own. Within these groups, they can share learning materials and exchange information with their classmates without university oversight.

The Barriers Between Black Women and Startup Capital

Research out of the University of Pretoria's Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in South Africa sheds light on how Black female founders access socioeconomic assistance for early-stage startups within entrepreneurial ecosystems.

The primary challenge for its author, Brett Frances Jury, was finding Black female entrepreneurs in the first place. The fact that she could identify so few was one indication that these founders might have difficulty accessing appropriate funding. In the end, Jury interviewed 14 entrepreneurs who had accessed startup capital, as well as four funders.

These interviews revealed several obstacles in the way of Black female founders. Foremost among these challenges is that the already rigorous application processes for obtaining financial support often subject these entrepreneurs to gender bias. Black female entrepreneurs often struggle to gain credibility with potential investors and must present more detailed information than men to attract funding.

Those who cannot access seed capital then will be less likely to attract venture capital later on in their startup journeys. Moreover, Black female founders also are more likely to lack access to personal networks of family and friends who can provide financial support, mentorship, or introductions to other advisors and potential investors.

Even with these disadvantages, the study indicates that “while there are very few Black female entrepreneurs who succeed in accessing early-stage capital, those who do are diligent, innovative, tenacious, resilient women with exceptional networks and access to mentors. It further demonstrates the transformative benefits of entrepreneurial support to early-stage businesses.”

Programs that provide mentorship, training in business planning, and access to networks, Jury emphasizes, can help these entrepreneurs maximize their chances of obtaining the capital necessary to start and grow their businesses.