Effects of Goal Pursuit on Women's Performance and Persistence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This research examines women's conflicting goal pursuits related to romantic desirability and intelligence in contributing to women’s underperformance and disproportionate dropout rate from STEM fields. In particular, whereas being intelligent in STEM and being romantically desirable are likely to be compatible goals for men, women are theorized to experience significant conflict, such that the pursuit of romantic goals may interfere with the pursuit of intelligence goals in the male-stereotyped domains of STEM.

Setting: 

University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

Research Design: 

This project involves a series of studies (e.g., experimental studies, reaction time studies, daily diary and longitudinal studies) to examine interactive effects of gender, gendered beliefs, and goal pursuit among university students enrolled in math, science, and engineering courses. Using multiple methods, this project examines how and why the pursuit of romantic goals diminishes women's attitudes, identification, interest, and performance in STEM versus other fields, and the efficacy of interventions designed to alter gendered beliefs about intelligence and romantic desirability. The proposed research will extend basic social psychological theory, and findings from this research may 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.

Findings: 

In one set of studies (Park, Young, Troisi, & Pinkus, in press), my collaborators and I examined the impact of everyday romantic goal strivings on women’s attitudes toward Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). We hypothesized that women (but not men) would show less interest in STEM when the goal to be romantically desirable is activated, because pursuing intelligence goals in masculine domains may conflict with the goal to be romantically desirable. Consistent with hypotheses, women (but not men) who viewed images (Study 1) or overheard a conversation (Study 2) related to romantic goals expressed less favorable attitudes toward STEM than women who were exposed to images or conversations related to intelligence goals. A daily diary study (Study 3) further revealed that on days when women pursued romantic goals, the more desirable they felt and the more romantic activities they engaged in, but the fewer math course activities they engaged in. In addition, the more women pursued romantic goals on the previous day, the more desirable they felt, but the fewer math course activities they engaged in on the following day.

In another set of studies (Park, Troisi, Young, & Eastwick, under review), women (but not men) who preferred romantic partners who were smarter than themselves endorsed both personal and societal beliefs that women who are less intelligent than men in masculine domains are romantically desirable (Study 1). Indeed, the more women preferred a smarter partner, the worse they performed on a math test (Studies 2-3) and expressed less identification with math, but not with the arts (Study 3) when romantic desirability goals were activated.

Together, the findings from the studies thus far suggest that women’s goal pursuits related to romantic desirability and intelligence goals have important implications for predicting interest and performance in STEM fields.

Publications & Presentations: 

Park, L., Young, A., Troisi, J., and Pinkus, R. (in press). Effects of everyday romantic goal pursuit on women’s attitudes toward math and science. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.