Researchers from Montana and Oregon did three experiments to test whether women lost motivation because they believed they had to put more effort into science and technology than their male colleagues.
“This is so hard for me, I must not really belong here”
In the first experiment the researchers examined how much effort graduate students in STEM fields perceived that they exerted, relative to their peers. The results showed that for women, perceived effort was inversely associated with sense of belonging.
That is many women seemed to say to themselves “this is so hard for me, I must not really belong in graduate school.” That perception was, in turn, associated with decreased motivation. These associations were not observed in men.
Male dominance makes women less interested
In the second experiment the researchers created a fictitious field (Eco-psychology) and distributed a professional-looking brochure for a graduate program in Eco-psychology to psychology students. The graduate program was subtly portrayed as either male-dominated or gender-neutral.
Students were asked a number of questions about it, including how interested they were in the program and how difficult they thought they would find it, compared to “the average student.” When the program was portrayed as male-dominated, women thought that they would find the program harder, and were less interested in learning more about it.
Everybody has to work hard
Experiment 3 used a trick in which subjects believed they were interacting with a real professor from an Eco-psychology program. The key manipulation was that the “professor” provided feedback about the subject’s likely success in the male-dominated program.
The feeling of alienation observed in Experiment 2 was observed again, but feedback from the professor could undo it. If the professor made effort seem normal but commenting that everyone in the program had to work hard, the gender effect disappeared.