When Trying Hard Isn’t Natural: Women’s Belonging with and Motivation for Male-Dominated STEM Fields as a Function of Effort Expenditure Concerns

Recognizing that effort is normal and necessary for success, rather than emphasizing the importance of  “natural talent”, can increase women’s sense of belonging and motivation to continue in male-dominated STEM fields.


Women are greatly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), a gap due in part to a lower sense of “belonging.” Women may feel they do not belong when a quantitative field emphasizes the importance of “natural talent,” which is stereotypically associated more with men. When women exert effort to accomplish tasks in such environments, they may perceive that their effort signals a lack of natural talent, discouraging those who feel they try harder than others to succeed. This study investigates the relationship between women’s perceptions of their own effort relative to their peers, their sense of belonging, and their motivation to continue in STEM. In three experiments, the authors surveyed first-year STEM graduate students on their perceptions of their programs and undergraduates on their perceptions of a fictional STEM graduate program. They compared women’s and men’s perceived effort, belonging, and motivation; the effects of a male-dominated versus a gender-equal environment; and the effects of emphasizing natural ability versus effort in achieving success.


When women perceived themselves to be expending more effort than their peers in order to succeed, they expressed a decreased sense of belonging and motivation to continue in STEM. Among first-year STEM graduate students:

  • Women perceived that they were expending more effort than their peers regardless of the gender of their peers, but especially compared to a male peer (a difference of 0.94 on a 5-point scale) than a female peer (a difference of 0.37 points).  
  • Perceptions of higher effort expenditure are tied to decreased belonging for women but not for men, which in turn leads to decreased motivation for women.

Women perceived male-dominated programs as requiring more effort from them than their peers in order to succeed, and were less interested in applying to such programs. Among undergraduates who viewed a brochure for a fictional “eco-psychology” graduate program:

  • Women and men expected to expend the same effort as an average student when the program was depicted as gender-equal (by gender of faculty names and people in photographs), but women expected to expend significantly more effort when the program was depicted as male-dominated (0.72 points on a 5-point scale).
  • Women and men expressed equal interest in applying to the program when it was depicted as gender-equal, but women expressed less interest when it was depicted as male-dominated (a significant difference of 1.05 on a 7-point scale).

When women were told that everyone had to expend a high amount of effort to succeed in a male-dominated program, their belonging and interest increased significantly. Among undergraduate women who both viewed the male-dominated program brochure for the fictional program and were encouraged to apply by a simulated advisor:

  • Women who were told they would likely succeed but that “like everyone else, you would likely have to put in a lot of effort” expressed a greater sense of anticipated belonging in the program than those who were told only that they would succeed, or that they would succeed by relying on their natural ability or with “a lot more effort than other people.”
  • These participants also expressed a more positive view of their own competence, more motivation, and less self-doubt than those who were told they would succeed with “a lot more effort than other people.”

These findings suggest that more openness about challenges and an explicit emphasis on the normalcy of exerting effort may increase women’s sense of belonging and motivation in male-dominated STEM fields that often implicitly or explicitly emphasize natural ability.


The first experiment recruited 149 first-year STEM graduate students (75 women) through an invitation to all first-year women and a similarly sized random sample of first-year men at two universities. Participants rated their relative effort compared to their peers (average of 4 items), and in absolute terms for themselves (3 items) and for a specific peer of their choosing (3 items). They also rated their sense of belonging (6 items) and motivation in their field (25 items), and reported their prior-term GPA as an objective measure of performance. The second experiment recruited 92 first- and second-year undergraduate students (53% women) from an introductory psychology course. Participants were randomly assigned to view one of two brochures for a fictional master’s program in “eco-psychology.” The brochure depicted either a male-dominated program or a gender-equal program, indicated by the gender of faculty names and people in photographs. After viewing a brochure, participants rated the effort required from themselves or from an average student to succeed in the program (each 5 items), and their interest in applying in the future (3 items). The third experiment recruited 41 third- and fourth-year undergraduate women from upper-division courses in ecology and psychology. Participants viewed the male-dominated “eco-psychology” program brochure, along with a video message from the program’s male “advisor.” Participants completed a career inventory, including GPA, and the simulated “advisor” responded with one of four randomized written messages. The control message provided positive feedback, saying the participant would likely succeed in the program. The other messages included this feedback and further noted that the participant would need to rely on natural ability, more effort than their peers, or the same amount of effort as their peers. Participants then rated their sense of belonging (6 items) and competence (4 items) in the field, and their self-doubt (17 items). Interest was measured by whether participants chose to receive further information about the program (4 items).

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