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Outperformance-Related Discomfort: Another Factor in Women’s Under-Representation in STEM?


Why do women remain underrepresented in some science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields? Research has uncovered various situational factors such as belongingness cues, but one understudied (and related) factor may be outperformance-related discomfort. Specifically, when people outperform others who are upset about being outperformed, they may experience sensitivity about being the target of a threatening upward comparison (STTUC; Exline and Lobel, in Psychological Bulletin 125:307–337, 1999). Three studies examined the potential role of STTUC among women in STEM and how STTUC relates to feelings of belongingness. Study 1 recruited a large internet sample of undergraduate women and found that the tendency to experience STTUC corresponded with relatively low levels of belongingness in both STEM and arts/humanities courses. Replicating prior research, results also showed significantly lower levels of belongingness in STEM vs. arts/humanities courses. Study 2 found higher anticipated levels of perceiving the outperformed person as upset and experiencing STTUC-related concerns among undergraduate women (vs. men) who imagined academically outperforming others. Study 3 examined women and non-binary first-year undergraduates in STEM and found that the tendency to experience STTUC corresponded to relatively low levels of belongingness in STEM at two time points. Taken together, results suggest that experiencing outperformance-related discomfort in STEM may predict relatively low levels of belongingness, which, over time, may contribute to weakening women’s interest in pursuing STEM. The present research may be of particular interest to educators, administrators, and policy makers interested in improving women’s representation in STEM.

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We thank James Shepperd for comments on an earlier draft and Lindsay Berrigan and Michael Boudreaux for statistical assistance.


The authors acknowledge the support of the following funding sources: St. Francis Xavier University Council for Research (UCR); National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Chair for the Atlantic Region; Centre for Employment Innovation at St. Francis Xavier University; Research Grants Office at St. Francis Xavier University.

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E.K. conceived the research question and broadly designed each study. A.D.J. designed Study 3, created the Qualtrics surveys, and collected and analyzed the data for her honors thesis. T.F.O. assisted with recruitment for Study 2 and provided feedback on the design of Studies 2 and 3.

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Correspondence to Erika J. Koch.

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All participants provided informed consent electronically. All studies received clearance through the St. Francis Xavier University Research Ethics Board (REB).

Human and Animal Ethics

The research reported complies with the standards of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (Canada).

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Koch, E.J., Davis-Janes, A.S. & Franz-Odendaal, T.A. Outperformance-Related Discomfort: Another Factor in Women’s Under-Representation in STEM?. Sex Roles 89, 539–551 (2023).

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