The Need for Belonging in Math and Science

The Need for Belonging in Math and Science

Psychology December 05, 2013 / By Scott Barry Kaufman
The Need for Belonging in Math and Science

"The data are in: feeling as though you belong in a field, and that the learning environment is accepting, comfortable, and trustworthy, matters quite a lot– not only for people’s motivation to engage in a domain, but also how high they eventually soar."

From her earliest memories, Catherine Good was good at math. By second grade she was performing at the fourth grade level, sometimes even helping the teacher grade other students’ work. She was praised constantly for her “gift”, often overhearing her mother tell anyone who would listen that she was a “sponge” for anything mathematical.

By high school, Good’s identity as a “gifted mathematician” was so heavily tied up with her math abilities that she decided to pursue a math major in college. However, she felt as though she was making the choice more out of obligation than passion:

“selecting mathematics as my major was not as much driven by my intrinsic interest and love of mathematics as by my long history of being labeled, praised, and reinforced for my math skills.”

She felt even greater pressure to pursue math since she was a woman. There appeared to be a dearth of  women in mathematics, so she felt a great burden to increase the female representation and prove that women are capable of achieving in mathematics.

Achieve she did. Good did so well as an undergraduate, that she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics. Again, she wasn’t driven by the sheer joy, but by other forces:

“My counter-stereotypical achievement, coupled with my belief that those successes were rooted in an innate gift, not only fueled my academic pursuits, but also formed the basis for my academic identity.”

For awhile, Good performed as usual in her graduate program. But then something happened that would change the course of her career: her identity became threatened. As Good puts it, “the identity as a mathematician that I thought was so well-entrenched and established came crashing down, leaving me in a professional crisis.”

Despite her good grades, a flood of self-doubt crept in. She suddenly wondered: Was I simply no longer inspired by the level of rigor and originality necessary for graduate level mathematics? Was it the fact that for the first time in my academic life, I had to work, really work, at my studies?

For the first time, she also questioned whether she was ever “truly” gifted. The belief in the innate nature of math ability is particularly prominent in the mathematics community, which relies heavily on a “talent-driven approach to math.” The mathematics students that are encouraged and nurtured are the ones who appear to produce elegant solutions with ease, presumably due to an underlying natural gift.

Good wondered, Had this culture of talent led me to believe that I had reached the pinnacle of my abilities because I had to now work at my studies? Or was the counter-stereotypical identity as “gifted female mathematician” now responsible for my mathematical-undoing?

Whatever the cause(s), one thing was certain: she no longer felt a sense of belonging in mathematics. As a result, she left mathematics.



As fortune would have it, Good happened to attend a talk by Joshua Aronson, who was a  professor at the same University. Aronson was talking about his research on stereotype threat, a situation in which a person is at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group. At this talk, something clicked for Good: this was it. Not only did the research resonate with her personal experiences, but she got excited to pursue this line of research. She immediately signed up to do her Ph.D. in social psychology with Aronson, and then did her post-doctoral work with Carol Dweck at Columbia.

Good’s impressive body of research, along with the research of her colleagues, have painted a consistent and important picture: an individual’s sense of belonging matters. The need for belonging is a fundamental human motive. While a sense of connection and acceptance is important for everyone, signals of acceptance may be particularly impactful for socially stigmatized individuals, who are constantly asking themselves: Do I belong?

In an excellent paper from 2007, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen showed that in academic and professional settings, members of socially stigmatized groups were more uncertain of the quality of their social bonds and more sensitive to issues of social belonging. They called this “belonging uncertainty”, and they found it contributed to racial disparities in achievement.

Belonging uncertainty may also contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. While the percentage of STEM degrees going to women has increased substantially over the past decade, there is still a sizable gender gap in STEM disciplines. In 2003, women earned only 24% of doctoral degrees in mathematics and 17% of doctoral degrees in engineering. STEM fields are overwhelmingly dominated by White men: in 2000, less than 10% of the mathematics faculty at universities were female.

Against this backdrop, Catherine Good, Aneeta Rattan, and Carol Dweck conducted a series of studies to help inform the answer to the question: why might females be less willing to pursue math-based disciplines?

In particular, they tested the idea that a person’s sense of belonging–“one’s personal beliefs that one is an accepted member of an academic community whose presence and contributions are valued”– in math can predict their desire to pursue math. To measure sense of belonging, they administered their Sense of Belonging to Math scale to a group of undergraduates at Columbia, who were already high-achieving in math. The scale included the following five factors:

  • Membership (“I feel like I belong to the math community”)
  • Acceptance (“I feel accepted”)
  • Affect (“I feel comfortable”)
  • Desire to Fade (“I wish I could fade into the background and not be noticed”)
  • Trust (“I trust my instructors to be committed to helping me learn”).

They found that this scale predicted both men’s and women’s intention to pursue math in the future as well as other important math-related variables, such as math anxiety, math confidence , and perceived usefulness of math. These effects remained, even after taking into account prior achievement in math. What’s more, prior achievement in math didn’t predict a sense of belonging– a finding consistent with other research showing that just because a person has high ability doesn’t mean that that person will be intrinsically motivated to pursue the field, or feel a sense of belonging for the domain.

In another study, the researchers followed college students in their calculus course three times during the semester (beginning, midway, and just before their examinations). They found that the more women perceived signals in their environment that math ability is a fixed trait, and the more they perceived negative stereotypes about women in math, the more likely they were to show a drop in a sense of belonging. In turn, this lowered sense of belonging led to a lower desire to pursue math in the future as well as lower math grades.

In contrast, the more women perceived a malleable-ability mindset environment (e.g., received signals that math skills can be cultivated), the more likely they were to maintain their sense of belonging to math even if they perceived negative stereotypes in the environment. The same effects were not found among men, and these effects could not be explained by their sense of belonging at the start of the semester or by their prior ability (e..g, SAT Math scores). These results suggest that the message that math ability can be acquired can protect women from the damage of being in a threatening environment, allowing them to maintain a high sense of belonging in math and intention to pursue math in the future.

Although prior studies have shown that explicitly telling people that they can increase their intelligence can go a long way toward reducing their vulnerability to stereotype threat (e.g., Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003), this study shows that supportive implicit messages perceived in the learning environment may be just as powerful in protecting students from the negative effects of stereotype threat.

The study also shows the long-term consequences of being in an environment that is full of negative stereotypes. As the semester wore on, women’s perceptions of negative stereotypes in their environment exerted greater influence over their sense of belonging, and their sense of belonging became increasingly important for their intent to pursue a career in math as well as their math performance.

This obviously has important implications for the STEM movement.  As the researchers note,

“Females’ lowered sense of belonging– perhaps in response to their perceptions of their learning environments– can make an academic community an uncomfortable, unwelcoming place to be, causing them to drop out of the domain. When the domain is something as fundamental as mathematics, domain avoidance essentially shuts the door to careers in science, engineering, and technology.”

They also point out that these same issues easily apply to members of any group who repeatedly face messages that their group is limited in ability. This includes Black and Latino Americans, as well as students with a specific learning disability.

The data are in: feeling as though you belong in a field, and that the learning environment is accepting, comfortable, and trustworthy, matters quite a lot– not only for people’s motivation to engage in a domain, but also how high they eventually soar.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

This article originally appeared at Scientific American

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