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Not Feeling Good in STEM: Effects of Stereotype Activation and Anticipated Affect on Women’s Career Aspirations

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Abstract

Despite great efforts to increase women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), relatively few women choose careers in these fields. We argue that women might expect to feel less good in contexts where unfavorable gender stereotypes are activated in their minds (e.g., by strong underrepresentation) and, consequently, are less likely to aspire to STEM careers. In two pilot studies (Ns = 28/61), we confirmed that undergraduate women expect more negative and less positive affect (i.e., generally (un)pleasant emotions) and a heightened sense of threat in a stereotype-activating, compared to a not stereotype-activating, test scenario. In Study 1 (N = 102), the scenario indirectly lowered college women’s STEM career aspiration (adjusted for preliminary domain identification) due to lower anticipated positive affect, but not to higher negative affect, in the stereotype-activating scenario. The scenario had no detrimental effect on college men’s anticipated affect or their career aspirations. In Study 2, 91 high school students reported anticipated affect and self-efficacy in different university majors and their intentions to choose the subject as a major. The more stereotypically male (in terms of gender distribution) the subject, the more negative and the less positive was young women’s, but not young men’s, anticipated affect. Only lower positive, but not higher negative, affect predicted low study intentions over and above self-efficacy. To increase women’s aspirations, their expected feelings in STEM deserve attention. One approach to foster positive affect might be to create less stereotypical STEM contexts.

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Acknowledgments

The data presented in this manuscript was collected when both authors were at the University of Konstanz. We thank Solange Zeller for her contribution to the data collection of Study 2, and Madeleine Bieg, Laura Froehlich, Sog Yee Mok, Elisabeth Parks-Stamm, and Marina Schall for their constructive feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Carolin Schuster.

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The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare with regard to the submitted manuscript or the research presented in it. Participants were treated following the ethical code of conduct of the American Psychological Association (APA 2010). Specifically, before they gave consent to participate, they were informed that participation was voluntary, that their answers were anonymous, and that they could quit and withdraw the data already given at any point of the session. The rewards (or chances to win them) were also made transparent at the beginning. Participants of the experimental studies, which included a stereotype-activating manipulation, were debriefed at the end. The information about the studies’ goals and the effects of stereotype activation provided in the debriefing was intended to interrupt the priming of the stereotype, and might even serve as protection against stereotype threat effects (Johns et al. 2005).

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Schuster, C., Martiny, S.E. Not Feeling Good in STEM: Effects of Stereotype Activation and Anticipated Affect on Women’s Career Aspirations. Sex Roles 76, 40–55 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0665-3

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