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As part of an introductory economics class, Swiss students had the option to work in study groups with their peers. Behind the scenes, a researcher randomly assigned them to groups with different gender ratios. Something interesting happened when a female was the sole woman and the other three group members were men:  she was 10 percentage points more likely to drop the course. 

That’s what a University of Zurich graduate student found in an experiment conducted in 2018 and 2019 involving more than 600 college students and 150 study groups. Dropout rates are high at Swiss universities, where less-prepared students are typically weeded out during the first year, so women probably wouldn’t be dropping out of an introductory economics class in such high numbers here in the United States. Still, the finding that the gender composition of something as small as an optional study group can be important is provocative.

Xiaoyue Shan, the researcher who conducted the study, explained to me that the sole women were more likely to drop the economics course not only because  “they find it difficult to interact” with a group of male students but also because the women became “less confident about their academic ability” when they were surrounded by men.

Shan thinks her study could help women persist in male-dominated academic fields, from engineering and science to finance and math. She argues that professors and teaching assistants might purposely cluster women together in study and laboratory groups instead of spreading them evenly throughout a class, which relegates them to the minority. “Especially don’t put them into a group where they are the only woman,” said Shan. “That’s the worst.”     

The study, “Does Minority Status Drive Women out of Male-Dominated Fields?,” is a working paper, which has not been peer reviewed, but it has generated a lively debate on Twitter in recent weeks. Some economists said the study was too small with only 50 women assigned to male-dominated groups to make such sweeping conclusions about the power of study groups. I would certainly want to see this study replicated before telling professors to re-engineer student groupings along gender lines.

However, the findings are in line with what other researchers are discovering about gender dynamics. For example, a Swedish research team found that women who were randomly assigned to male majority teams were less willing to become team leaders than women assigned to female majority teams. That study is slated to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Review of Economics and Statistics.  Another unpublished study by Brigham Young University researchers found that adding a single “token” woman to all-male groups in college accounting classes put the women at a disadvantage. And a July 2020 paper published in the American Economic Journal pointed to the power of female role models in encouraging women to major in male-dominated fields, such as economics. 

In this Swiss study, roughly a third of the 1,000 students in the economics course each year volunteered to participate in study groups and were randomly assigned to groups of four students. The study groups could do whatever they wanted outside of class, from toiling on problem sets to studying for exams to grabbing a beer. The course was only 35 percent female but women were more likely to want to participate in a study group and nearly 260, or 42 percent, of the 620 volunteers were women. More than 50 of these women were assigned to study groups in which they were the only females. The rest were placed in gender balanced groups or in groups dominated by men.  About 30 of the 360 men were assigned to study groups in which they were the only males. 

For men, there was no association between the gender composition of their study group and whether they dropped the course or not. In the end, 9 percent of the men dropped the course. Their dropout rates were very similar whether they were in a study group’s minority or the majority. By contrast, 13 percent of the women dropped the course, and the women who were assigned to be the sole females in their study groups were 10 percentage points more likely to be among them. Female students who were assigned to gender balanced or majority female study groups fared better and had lower dropout rates by comparison.

A surprising twist was that higher achieving women drove the higher departure rates among women. That is, women with stronger high school grades, even in math, were the most discouraged by a male-dominated study group and dropped the course. Lower achieving women were seemingly not harmed by the male atmosphere; their dropout rates didn’t increase when they were the only female. Shan suspects this is because high-achieving women have high expectations for themselves and the confidence that they can succeed in another field that isn’t male-dominated. (I wonder if perhaps low-achieving women don’t expect to shine and they are willing to muddle through in the male shadows.)

When Shan herself was an undergraduate in Beijing, her favorite study group was for a business class in enterprise resource planning. The groups didn’t just study; they competed against each other. Shan’s group happened to be all women. “Our purely female team worked quite well,” said Shan. “We had many rounds of competition the whole semester. We won the whole game. It’s quite a nice experience.”

I’ve had empowering experiences like that too. And I suspect that similar personal anecdotes are subtly influencing a new generation of feminist researchers. Shan’s findings may eventually prove to be true in many settings but we should also be careful about embracing early research that happens to fit neatly with today’s academic trends. It’s worth watching but not yet conclusive.

This story about study groups was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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