A helpful way to understand why women and minorities struggle to persist in STEM majors in college is provided by the goal congruency theory from psychology. Jessi L. Smith, Erin Cech, Anneke Metz, Meghan Huntoon, and Christina Moyer used the theory to frame their research published in the 2014 article, “Giving Back or Giving Up: Native American Student Experiences in Science and Engineering” in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. The theory states that “individuals pursue and persist at tasks believed to match (i.e., are congruent with) their personal goals and values” (414). When the tasks and personal goals are incongruent, then STEM undergraduates are at risk for attrition.
Minorities and women, more often than white men, value the communal goals of helping others and giving back to their communities. These goals clash with the individualistic characteristics of STEM culture – intense competition and lack of group activities and support– which are most prevalent in the first two years of college. Native American undergraduates, both men and women, frequently experience goal incongruency, especially those raised on reservations who plan to eventually help others in those tightly-knit communities by earning a STEM degree.
It’s unfortunate that the first two years of STEM education are a poor representation of the actual character of STEM occupations. Many STEM professionals and organizations do have communal goals of collaboration and improving the environment and society. All academic partners, including libraries, need to be thinking about how to alter the artificially individualistic culture of STEM education and make its tasks more congruent with the values of many promising undergraduates.
Photo attribution: “Disappointed” by Dan Machold, some rights reserved.