This research seeks to understand the causes of women's lower rates of participation and achievement in STEM compared to men. The focus is specifically on the role of belonging in STEM defined as feeling a sense of fit, personal acceptance, respect, and inclusion as a member of an academic discipline. The study builds on two key prior observations: (1) belonging is well documented to facilitate a range of positive academic outcomes such as achievement and motivation, but (2) women report feeling a lower sense of belonging in STEM than do men. Recent research, including preliminary work by the research team, indicates that such gender differences in belonging underlie gender differences in STEM representation and achievement, but key questions remain. First, why do women experience a lower sense of belonging in STEM than men? The research addresses this by investigating theoretically-derived antecedents of belonging and how they may produce differences in belonging between men and women in STEM. Second, how does a thwarted sense of belonging in STEM translate into lower performance and motivation? The proposed research specifically tests whether questioning one's sense of fit in a domain consumes cognitive resources that would otherwise be used for learning and performance, producing reductions in working memory capacity that underlie the negative effects of low belonging on academic outcomes. The particular focus in this research, to be conducted at the University of Colorado, will be women?s achievement and retention within the physical sciences, technology engineering, and math (pSTEM), where gender disparities have been particularly large and persistent.
These research questions will be addressed with a large prospective field study and several experimental lab studies. The field study assesses both the antecedents of belonging, and the impact of belonging on short-term and long-term academic outcomes. This will be accomplished by surveying men and women enrolled in gateway pSTEM classes several times during the semester, then tracking their academic performance throughout their college career. Factors identified in past research as possible antecedents of belonging (instructor support, general social support, compatibility of life goals with pSTEM careers, and salience of gender stereotypes in pSTEM) will be measured earlier in the semester, and their impact of end-of-semester belonging will be assessed. We will also assess how belonging in turn influences course outcomes (e.g., course grade), as well as longer-term outcomes such as grades in subsequent pSTEM classes and retention in a pSTEM major. The field study will be complemented by controlled lab studies that test the direct effect of belonging on performance and learning, and whether any decreases in belonging are driven by reduced working memory capacity. These studies will take the form of varying situational cues that should impact belonging among women, then measuring working memory capacity and either performance on tests of already learned pSTEM material or learning of new pSTEM content. Analyses will assess whether decrements in women's performance and learning are mediated by decreases in working memory capacity.
Despite meaningful increases in the number of women pursing STEM disciplines in college, women's pursuit of and achievement within pSTEM disciplines still lags behind that of men. The main goal of this research is to understand the role that a sense of fit and acceptance within STEM plays in this gender gap. The ultimate goal is to inform empirically-rooted interventions that foster a secure sense of belonging among all students pursing pSTEM. For example, knowledge of factors that influence belonging, and how such factors may operate within actual pSTEM classes to produce lower belonging almng women, could be used to shape educational practices to minimize such gender differences. Similarly, knowledge of how threats to belonging impair performance and learning could lead to strategies that minimize these effects in authentic learning contexts. Moreover, while the proposed work is focused on understanding gender disparities in belonging and how these produce gender disparities in pSTEM achievement and representation, a fuller understanding of how belonging translates into positive academic outcomes should serve the broader goal of increasing participation among other underrepresented groups, as well as facilitating achievement and retention of all students in STEM.