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Women and the STEM Sciences: When Trying Hard Isn’t Natural

July 26, 2013

By Jessi L. Smith (Montana State University), Karyn L. Lewis (University of Oregon), Lauren Hawthorne (University of Maine), and Sara D. Hodges (University of Oregon)

Everyone knows that science is challenging work – that’s why scientists are seen as so smart! However, women who feel they are working harder at science than others may doubt that science is for them. Reviews of research (see AAUW, 2010) show women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields already encounter a number of gender-related challenges – bias, stereotypes, work-life imbalance, scarcity of role models. If women also feel that science doesn’t come “naturally” to them, is it any wonder that recent reports (National Science Foundation, 2013) show that women are underrepresented in many STEM fields?

Having to work hard at something is often seen as a sign of incompetence, especially to people who view ability as “fixed” – as you either have it or you don’t (Murphy & Dweck, 2010). People especially see ability as fixed when judging others in activities traditionally associated with the opposite gender, such as girls doing math or boys writing. Having to put in a lot of effort can contribute to the idea that women do not have an “innate ability” for STEM. This means that even among women who are performing well in STEM (e.g., earning good grades), feeling that they are putting in more effort than others to earn those A’s may take a toll on their motivation. We set out to test how women’s perceptions about the effort they exert in STEM fields impacts whether they feel they belong in STEM. We also wanted to test what would happen to women’s motivation if we created a STEM opportunity that valued effort – that is, reassured women that having to exert effort was normal.

We conducted one field study and two experiments, work recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne, & Hodges, 2013). Knowing that the transition from college to graduate school is a critical juncture where some women decide to leave STEM fields, in our first study we surveyed women and men enrolled in their first year of STEM graduate programs at two universities. We asked them to compare themselves to “other students” in their program in terms of how much effort they had to exert in their field. We also asked about how much they felt like they fit in with their program and their level of motivation in their chosen field.

The men and women we surveyed reported comparable grade point averages (if anything, the women were doing a hair better), which was an important finding to rule out the possibility that women were putting in more effort because they were less competent. We found that the female STEM graduate students – but not the male students – perceived themselves as having to exert more effort than their peers. Furthermore, these perceptions were related to women’s doubts about whether they belonged in STEM fields.

These results are disturbing, because female graduate students in STEM have already demonstrated a commitment to their field by applying to and being accepted into graduate programs. Furthermore, these women may have cultivated support systems for dealing with gender stereotypes and strategies to navigate maled-ominated fields which may set them apart from women who didn’t pursue graduate studies in STEM. So, for our second study, we took a step back to look at undergraduates making decisions about pursuing graduate degrees in male-dominated fields like STEM.

As social psychologists often do, we simulated a realistic situation in the lab to make students believe we were recruiting students for a new master’s program in “ecopsychology” (we let participants know the program wasn’t real at the end of the study). Undergraduate men and women were given a brochure about the program, but some participants saw a brochure that included pictures of mostly men and primarily listed men as faculty in the program, whereas other participants saw a brochure that equally represented men and women. Women who looked at the male-dominated brochure expected to have to exert more effort than others to succeed in the program, even though the program was otherwise identical to the one in the gender-equal brochure (see Figure 1). Women were also less interested in pursuing “eco-psychology” when it appeared to be male-dominated. Men showed the same effort expectations and interest regardless of which brochure they saw.


Figure 1. The difference between self and peer effort ratings depending on the gender composition of the graduate program’s brochure.

Rather than end with these disheartening results, for our third study we tried to enhance women’s motivation for a STEM graduate program by normalizing perceptions about the effort they would have to exert. To do this, female ecology and psychology undergraduates looked at the male-dominated brochure for ecopsychology and then were led to believe they were being interviewed over webcam by a graduate coordinator for the program. After a few minutes, the interview was ostensibly interrupted due to technical difficulties, and the women received a concluding phone message from the graduate coordinator. The participants were randomly assigned to receive one of four different messages, all of which began by telling women that they were good candidates for the program and would likely succeed. For some, the message continued andwomen who were told “like everyone else, you would likely have to put in a lot of effort” reported a greater sense of belonging and more interest in eco-psychology, and as shown in Figure 2 they requested more additional information about the program (e.g., an application) suggesting more future motivation to pursue this science field.


Figure 2. Percentage of additional items requested about the graduate program (e.g., an application, to be added to the mailing list, etc).

Taken together, our three studies suggest that women perceive that succeeding in male-dominated STEM fields will require greater effort from them compared to their peers and these perceptions undermine their interest in these fields. Importantly, reassuring women that everyone has to expend a lot of effort in these fields (ie., that ability and success are effort-based) appears to increase women’s interest. We conclude our paper with this advice meant to broaden the participation of women in STEM: The scientific community would do well to change the culture of science to one that celebrates how much hard work goes into good science.

Author Information

SmithjJessi L. Smith, Ph.D. ( ) is an Associate  Professor of Psychology and Director and Primary Investigator of ADVANCE Project  TRACS at Montana State University. Her research interests include the self- regulation of motivation, particularly in situations in which cultural norms and  expectations might interfere with the individual’s experience. She is particularly  interested in research aimed at broadening participation of women and minorities  in STEM fields.

LewisKaryn L. Lewis ( is a Ph.D. candidate at the  University of Oregon. Her research interests concern interpersonal perception,  particularly in the role target characteristics play as perceivers attempt to decode  their thoughts, emotions, and personality traits. Karyn also studies belonging needs  and how these needs affect people’s perceptions, motivation, and behavior.

LauHawthorneren Hawthorne is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Maine. Her research  interests focus on the targets of stereotypes, particularly the effect of environmental  cues on performance and coping in stereotyped domains. Lauren’s other research  interests include the effects of psychological and physiological stressors on  attitudes, cognition, and behavior.

HodgesSara D. Hodges, Ph.D. ( ) is a Professor  of Psychology at the University of Oregon. Her research examines the relationship  between the self and other people: how people try to understand other people; how  people use the self in forming representations of other people; and how people  make comparisons between themselves and other people.


AAUW (2010).  Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and  mathematics. American Association of University Women, Washington DC.

Murphy, M. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2010). A culture of genius: How an organization’s lay  theory shapes people’s cognition, affect, and behavior.  Personality and Social  Psychology Bulletin, 36,  283-296. doi: 10.1177/0146167209347380.

National Science Foundation. (2013).  Women, Minorities, and Persons with  Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2013: Special Report NSF 13-304. Arlington, VA. Available at

Smith, J. L, Lewis, K. L., Hawthorne, L., & Hodges, S. D. (2013). When trying hard isn’t natural: Women’s belonging with and motivation for male-dominated  STEM fields as a function of effort expenditure concerns.  Personality and  Social Psychology Bulletin, 39 , 3-15. doi: 10.1177/0146167212468332.

Image Credit: Kelly Gorham (Montana State University photographer)

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