Students Study Cortisol Levels, Brain Activity to Combat Gender Bias in C-Suites

September 9, 2019


Is there something in the Y chromosome that makes for a more likely corporate leader? Are women sound decision-makers in times of turmoil? Is the lack of women in critical mass at the top of Fortune 500 companies a result of unconscious bias  or more deliberate, systemic sexism? These questions and more were at the heart of a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (S.U.R.E.) project conducted this summer in the labs of Stonehill’s Neuroscience program.

Kaitlyn Corey ’20 and Professor Jennifer Segawa, assistant professor of biology and neuroscience, measure brain activity with an electroencephalogram (EEG)

Examining the Glass Cliff: Behavioral, Psychological, and Neural Effects of Stress on Risk-Taking Behavior in Men and Women is a collaborative effort between the May School of Arts & Sciences, the Meehan School of Business and Brandeis University. Kaitlyn Corey ’20 and her advisor Jennifer Segawa, assistant professor of biology and neuroscienceare, are working in conjunction with Claire Elling, a doctoral student at Brandeis University, Elif Sisli Ciamarra, associate professor of business at Stonehill, and Jutta Wolf, visiting assistant professor in psychology at Brandeis University. Together they examined the so-called glass cliff, a companion phenomenon to the glass ceiling in which women are more likely to reach the highest levels of leadership at times of organizational turmoil  when chances of failure are highest. In turn, their more likely failure fuels the stereotype that women are poor decision-makers who fear taking the right risks under pressure.  

 “Theories abound about the lack of leadership opportunities available to women, but in fact, there’s evidence that women are good decision-makers who are more calculating and selective about risk under pressure,” explains Segawa. “We wanted to jump into the fray by providing quantitative data that could validate this prior research and show that women aren’t necessarily failing, but are simply put in positions where they’re more likely to fail.” 

To uncover the data, Segawa and Corey studied the physiological impact of stress in female and male students from Stonehill’s Meehan School of Business. After Wolf and Elling simulated stressful situations, Segawa and Corey collected saliva samples to examine levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and measured brain activity with an electroencephalogram (EEG) to evaluate any biological differences in the women’s and men’s stress responses. Sisli Ciamarra then analyzes the risk-taking data. 

"Our students become the experts on what they’re studying — that’s the Stonehill way."
Jennifer Segawa, assistant professor of biology and neuroscience

 We don't have any conclusions yet, but the plan is to test people in business, those higher up the hierarchy in middle management,” said SegawaThe idea is that these are the people that would be eligible for the c-suite, the people whose decision-making skills are being judged. 

 For Corey, the project is both an opportunity to build a curriculum vitae of hands-on lab research  highly unusual at the undergraduate level  and provide a public service to society. “These misconceptions that women are too emotional for high-stakes jobs aren’t rooted in science, so to uncover scientific evidence that debunks these gender biases is an incredible opportunity,” she says. 

 Over the summer, Corey and Segawa met weekly to discuss the project and collaborated via text messages in between. “It makes a world of difference to have a research advisor in the field you’re interested in, who has already done what you’re trying to do and can give you an honest picture of what the process looks like,” adds Corey.  

For Segawa, the magic of the S.U.R.E. program comes from following the students’ lead. “I set the framework and provide practical advice, but our students are so self-motivated in doing the work from hypothesis through experimentation,” she says. “Our students become the experts on what they’re studying  that’s the Stonehill way.”