Effects of Goal Pursuit on Women's Performance and Persistence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)
Park, Lora Principal Investigator
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Abstract Women continue to be underrepresented in various fields within STEM. For example, in higher education, women represent just 29% of faculty in doctoral science and engineering programs at 4-year colleges and universities, and 18% of full professors in these fields. Although various theories have been proposed to explain women's underperformance and underrepresentation in STEM, an area that has not yet been investigated is how women's broader goal pursuits may affect their performance and decision to persist in these fields. During college, two goals may be particularly salient for men and women and include the goal to be competent, which facilitates educational and career aspirations, and the goal to be attractive, which facilitates social relationships and mate-related goals. Whereas men may not experience much conflict when pursuing both goals, women are hypothesized to experience significant conflict, such that the pursuit of attractiveness may interfere with their pursuit of competence. In line with this, the present research proposes that women who believe that competence is attractive and desirable in men, but not in women, may show decrements in competence when primed with the goal to be attractive. The project involves a series of studies to examine effects of gender, gendered beliefs, and goal pursuit among college students enrolled in math, science, and engineering courses. Using multiple methods (e.g., lab studies, reaction time studies, daily diary and longitudinal studies), this research will study: a) how and why the pursuit of attractiveness undermines women's competence; b) whether the pursuit of attractiveness undermines women's cognitive performance in general; c) effects of succeeding vs. failing at goal pursuit; and d) the efficacy of social psychological interventions designed to alter gendered beliefs about competence and attractiveness. Three mediators (e.g., automatic inhibition of competence, increased relational focus, salience of femininity) will be tested as mechanisms linking women's pursuit of attractiveness with diminished performance and interest in STEM. The proposed research will extend basic social psychological theory, and findings from this research will be directly relevant to college students in math, science, and engineering courses. In addition, findings from this research may guide the development of interventions designed to recruit and retain women in STEM by better understanding the nature of their goal pursuits and gendered beliefs.