Sapna Cheryan is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Principal Investigator of the UW Stereotypes, Identity, and Belonging Lab. She received her PhD in psychology from Stanford University in 2007 and joined the UW faculty during the same year. Dr. Cheryan is a social psychologist and studies current social problems focused on inequality and prejudice. She has conducted extensive research on topics of gender within the field of computer science and also examined how immigration is changing the nature of race relations in the U.S. Some of her primary research questions include the following: how do stereotypes shape women’s career opportunities? How do members of immigrant groups respond to not being seen as American? Are there negative effects of positive stereotypes and, if so, what are they?
What is a message that Dr. Cheryan would like others to take away from her research? “The image of a field really matters to students, even if they have not experienced it first-hand. It can powerfully determine students’ choices and behaviors. These images are malleable and one of our duties as leaders is to communicate that many different types of people can succeed in our fields—not just one type.”
In an interview with UW ADVANCE, Dr. Cheryan shares about her interest in social psychology and her advice for women pursuing careers in science and/or engineering.
Q&A: Professional interests and advice for women in science and engineering
Q: How did you become interested in the field of social psychology?
A: I was always interested in issues of equality, especially in terms of race and gender. As early as middle school I remember reading a lot of books on these topics, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which had a lot to do with racial issues. I also did a lot of science in school and though that I might become a neuroscientist one day. I took a psychology class as a high school student and decided to major in the field based on that course. During my junior year, I took a social psychology class. For the first time I realized that I could study diversity and prejudice while using the scientific method. This is ultimately how I decided on my field. It seemed like the perfect merging of what I like to think about with how I like to think.
Q: What advice do you have for women pursuing careers in science and/or engineering?
A: My advice would be to find a peer support network. The research shows that if you can answer the question, “do you have a best friend at work?” positively, then you’re very likely to be satisfied with your job. Psychologists have found that your response to this question, which is essentially about belonging and community, is more important than almost any other factors, including your salary or your general health. It doesn’t have to be ten people; it could be just one person. Regardless of your educational or professional stage, find a friend doing the same thing you are doing. For example, convince a friend to take a class with you or find someone who is already majoring in your field of study and connect with her or him. This friendship will provide a couple of important benefits: first, you will have someone to support you when you’re having a difficult time and celebrate your successes with you; second, when you face doubts, your friend will help you recognize that everyone experiences feelings of doubt and that you are not alone in your concerns and struggles. You’re much more likely to persevere toward your goals with a close friend in your network.
Watch Dr. Cheryan’s TEDxSeattle presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYwI-qM20x4