It’s Just a Theory Right? What Motivational Theories Have to Offer for Closing the Gender STEM gap

As an academic researcher one of the things I do is go to conferences and talk about my research. As a mixed methods researcher sometimes I’m presenting big fat tables full of numbers. Coefficients, effect sizes, p-values, fit indices, all that jazz. Other times I share the words of girls I’ve interviewed and stitch together their different narratives to present interesting pictures of how they construct ideas about science, scientists, and their place in the world of science. Sometimes I do both in the same presentation. This makes for a lot of variety in the way I share my work. But every time I present, regardless of the methods or the specifics I’m discussing on that particular day, the same thing happens. 

After my talk, a fresh faced young teacher (or researcher) will come up, thank me for my talk, tell me my program sounds amazing, and then ask THE QUESTION. I really hate THE QUESTION. “So,” they say, “what curriculum do you use at SPICE camp?” Then I run screaming from the room, gnashing my teeth, and rending my nice suit jacket. 

OK, I don’t really do that. Nor do I shout, “You clearly weren’t LISTENING!”  

Now you are wondering, what kind of educator is this woman? Isn’t the goal of teaching for people to learn things? Don’t you need curriculum [1] to learn things? Aren’t you teaching science?

Well yes, of course we have curriculum. If I were to describe it I think our curriculum is like disco lighting. Shiny, eclectic, and constantly shifting. Don’t get distracted by the moving shiny lights! You are here to DANCE! 

Image Credit: B. Todd

Image Credit: B. Todd

Many outreach programs are sponsored by professional societies or grants that have a learning outcome agenda. If the people footing the bill are the international society of women in engineering, then you better bet they want the participants to be learning about engineering, not plant biology. Curriculum is going to be the main focus of such a program. Which is great, but it’s only address a small slice of the problem. We don’t just have a problem with women in engineering, or computer science, or physics (though these are the most problematic areas with regards to women in STEM [1] ), we’ve got a blanket problem with women not choosing STEM at all.

Remember, gender disparities in STEM are not the result of ability or achievement differentials. They are the result of choices made by humans. Girls are learning the same curriculum as boys, but they aren’t choosing STEM, and when they do, they are disproportionately choosing to leave STEM. 

What makes the SPICE approach to science outreach different is the emphasis on implementation. The content is nowhere near as important as HOW it is delivered [2]. Many schools have adopted high quality science curriculum and spent a lot of time and money training teachers to use that curriculum. States have invested millions of dollars in curriculum and assessments. We now have Next Generation Science Standards, which on balance, I think are pretty good. And yet. Girls are still opting out of science. We still have a massive gender gap in STEM and no fancy curriculum will fix that. Remember, girls achieve in science just fine. What they don’t do is CHOOSE science.

Why don’t they choose science? Because science isn’t choosing them.

This is why I don’t like THE QUESTION. The question implies that if we just get the perfect curriculum suddenly all the doors will open up and we will have fixed this “girl problem” in STEM. As I’ve stated before in this blog. We don’t have a “girl problem” we have a STEM culture problem. 

Curriculum is incredibly important in how students learn, but it won’t fix the “soft” elements of inducting students into the culture and identity of STEM practitioner. When social messages, stereotypes, and classroom dynamics all signal STEM as the domain of a certain type of white (or Asian) male, all the good curriculum in the world will not make it more attractive to women. There is a reason women out number men in nursing nine to one. It’s not because nursing schools do a better job of teaching medicine to women than men, it’s because men do not see themselves as nurses. This is despite the fact that nursing can be a physically demanding job requiring an authoritative demeanor and high level of technical expertise, all characteristics typically associated with masculine professions. But that’s not how nursing is thought of in our culture. Nursing evokes images of caring and nurturing more traditionally associated with the feminine. Similarly, girls do not see themselves in most STEM careers which are typified as isolated, requiring exceptional intelligence, and lacking in connections to the human experience.

Research shows that, at all levels, girls have fewer encounters with science, have fewer hands on science opportunities, and are less likely to be recognized for scientific accomplishments. If we want girls to view science careers as “thinkable” we have to provide the same motivational reinforcements to them that boys receive as a matter of course. When parents ask me about how they can find experiences like the SPICE program for their sons I want to shout, “The whole world is SPICE for boys!”

This is where having a good understanding of motivational theory comes in. If we know what is missing from girls STEM experiences then what can we do to fill in that gap? What are the concrete actions that teaches and parents and girls can take to build enduring interest in STEM education and careers? This blog will go into these topics individually in more detail over the next few months, but for now, here is the shortlist of motivational theories I use in my work and research and some quick notes about the implications of each.


Based in the work of Albert Bandura, whose Bobo Doll experiment is both entertaining and terrifying to parents everywhere, Self-Efficacy, stated simply is an individuals’ belief in her ability to successfully complete a task. Note the emphasis on belief in this definition. Competence is often associate with self-efficacy, but not always, and the relationship goes both ways, building competence can build self-efficacy and building self-efficacy has been shown to contribute to increased competence. Self-efficacy development is a complicated process that involved interplay between the individual, mentors and peers, and the environment. Suffice it to say, our culture and educational system falls short of supporting girls STEM self-efficacy in many ways.


Psychologist Erik Erikson developed a theory of psychosocial development that identified 8 stages of identity development spanning from infancy to death. Each of these stages is imagined as a conflict that must be successfully resolved within the individual. One key stage that researchers, parents, and teachers or interested in is Identity vs. Role confusion. This is the stage that overlaps with adolescence and relates to a lot of identity work that starts up around the middle school years. Successful identity integration requires a series of cyclical processes that involve trying on new identities, receiving feedback about the suitability of identities, and shifting identity expressions.

This process is most visible in teens who heavily associate identity with alignment to cultural icons like musicians, artists, and actors. Dress becomes an important means of expressing identity for this age group and they are particularly alert for criticism and messages disconfirming belonging to a particular group or identity. Navigating complex, ever looming gender identities is a major component of this phase and the need to find an appropriate and meaningful gender expression can often run contrary to the expressions of a STEM identity. Girls who feel they must choose between their gender and interest in STEM will feel enormous pressure to conform to gendered expectations.

Interest Formation

Interest development is another area necessary for adopting a STEM orientation to the world. That is, people generally need to be interested in something to spend much time working toward it. In my work and research, I use the Four Phase model of Interest development delineated by Hidi and Renninger. This model identifies ways in which people engage in their interest and how interest can be scaffolded to develop from simply noticing and passively observing a subject of interest to becoming an expert who is able to pose novel questions and sustain their interest through self-driving inquiry and engagement. 

Many people, and especially children, have a situational interest in science (everyone likes a good science demonstration with fire or big chemical reactions). The key to building enduring interest is supporting students in developing a deeper, self-sustaining, personal interest in STEM topics. 


Carol Dweck and colleagues noticed some interesting anomalies in their research with children. First, they found that some students relished challenges that were likely to result in failure, while others avoided them at all costs. They also noticed that girls who were otherwise quite willing to take risks, were more likely to adopt the avoidant approach to math and science challenges. From this research Dweck developed the theory of mindsets. In a nutshell, some people view their intelligence in a particular domain as fixed, not capable of changing. For these individuals, failure is a signal of lower intelligence, and something to be avoided, particularly by those who generally thing of themselves a bright. Other individuals view their intelligence as malleable and capable of change with practice, and yes, the occasional failure. These individuals have a growth mindset, and relish challenge as an opportunity to learn and . . . well, grow.

The crazy things about mindsets is that life, self-efficacy, they can be very specific.  One individual can have a patchwork of growth and fixed mindsets. Many girls, who are identified as gifted and are willing to take risks in say, English class, may avoid similar behavior in a math setting, where the cultur stereotypes identity the domain as the realm of men and something that requires an innate talent that some people simply do not have.

Dweck and her colleagues have identified a host of behaviors and approaches to teaching that can help foster a growth mindset and an equally large list of practices that undermine girls in math and science.


[1] STEM = Science Technology Engineering Mathematics

[2] Am I the only one who thinks the word curriculum is just a pretentious way of saying, “stuff you learn?” Yeah, I probably am.

 [3] Yes, of course the content is important! Trust me, I’m a total hard-ass, demanding that the content be legitimate science with clearly delineated facts, concepts, and learning outcomes. I just don’t particularly care what facts/concepts/learning outcomes they are! [4]

 [4] Of course I care what they are. But only a little.