Women Drop Out of STEM Fields Because They Fear Failure


A couple of new studies suggest that women might be “self-selecting” out of STEM fields because we’re trained to fear mediocrity and failure. It makes sense—when you’re told all your life that you have to be “twice as good” to compete “in a man’s world,” it’s tough to feel like you have the luxury of taking chances.

And when you get into specifically male-dominated fields, the pressure to excel is even more intense—after all, the reputation of your entire gender is riding on you. Though it’s not exactly a hard science (YET), stand-up comedy is a straightforward example. When a male comic bombs, it’s because that guy had a bad set or a bad crowd. When a female comic bombs, it’s because women aren’t funny.


Bryce Covert at the Nation offers some insightful explication:

Women have overtaken men in college attendance. Yet they end up being just about 30 percent of the people who graduate with economics degrees and 41 percent of those from science and engineering programs.
And a pair of studies diagnose one source of this leaking pipeline: these disciplines grade on a tough curve, and as women’s grades fall in economics or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes, their likelihood of ditching those classes rises. Catherine Rampell, who draws the studies together in The Washington Post, worries this means women are self-selecting out “because they fear delivering imperfection in the ‘hard’ fields” and urges women “to overcome our B-phobia.”

And, digging deeper:

In a series of studies in the 1980s, psychologist Carol Dweck looked at how bright fifth graders handled challenging materials. She found that girls quickly give up when given something new and complex. Boys, on the other hand, see it as a challenge and are more likely to try again instead of throwing in the towel. In writing about this study, Heidi Grant Halvorson, says, “The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty—what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn.” Bright girls lost confidence quickly, and researchers found it’s because they think their abilities are something innate and immutable. Boys think that can gain abilities by trying harder.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.

And, while you’re at it, go hire a woman and tell a girl not to give up.

Image via Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.

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