Talented women and self-limiting attitudes about achievement

Caltech chapter of the Society of Women Engineers

More women pursuing science and tech careers

In my earlier article Women enjoying science and technology, there is a reference to the fact that Caltech [in Pasadena, CA], enrolled a record number of women in 2007: 37%, the highest rate since 1970.

What social and personal influences help talented young women decide to pursue – or not even consider – training in science, a talent domain that may still be seen as “unfeminine”?

[Photo above is from the Caltech chapter of the Society of Women Engineers – and is also used in my post What Variety of Creative Person Are You?]

Learned helplessness can stand in the way

In her article Gender Differences in Gifted Achievement In Britain and the USA, Prof. Joan Freeman writes about research on the idea of “learned helplessness” – a state, she explains, “in which people have come to believe that success and failure depend on circumstances beyond their control.

“Because they think their fate depends on luck, they give up their goals too easily, offering a variety of excuses for failure.

“Dweck and Licht [the researchers] concluded that the American girls they studied had greater learned-helpless orientation in mathematics and science than boys.”


Freeman notes that in Britain too, “there is evidence that some females may be so ego-defensive that they become self-handicapping. Females are more likely than males to offer excuses, such as inherent handicaps, test-anxiety, or recent traumatic events, prior to beginning a task, especially if the task is personally threatening.

Conventional expectations

“And parents and teachers, Dweck (1999) suggests, can foster adaptive (mastery), rather than maladaptive (learned helplessness) motivational patterns.”

Freeman writes about other research reporting that boys “are more likely to have a positive attitude toward science and achievement in biology and physics.”

One of the problems may be that parents “held somewhat fixed and conventional gender expectations, which influenced girls’ self-esteem more than their actual performances, and so inhibited their ambitions.”

Of course, those sort of conventional gender expectations impact boys and men as well.

It can be helpful to us at any age to keep examining the attitudes we have learned about what is “appropriate” for us in terms of vocation and achievement.