Although many women begin their studies in these fields, their numbers drop at every stage of educational and professional advancement. At the undergraduate level in the U.S., about half of all students are women. Yet in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math—STEM for short—women account for only 39 percent of bachelor's degrees and 35 percent of Ph.D.s. At the end of this leaky educational pipeline, only 27 percent of the people working in STEM-related occupations are women.

Educators and policy makers have deployed various strategies to encourage women to stay in STEM careers, but the effectiveness of these campaigns could be improved. Measures to increase the number of women in these careers typically center on the barriers, biases and stereotypes that discourage them—a so-called prevention focus. The obstacles can be formidable, but emphasizing only the negatives can be demoralizing. Psychology studies find that when students feel that life events are out of their control, their performance suffers. Similarly, teaching women about the cognitive burden of stereotypes without giving them tools to overcome these challenges can be counterproductive, harming their performance.

In contrast, our research in behavioral science suggests that acknowledging burdens and barriers while emphasizing the potential benefits of pursuing a scientific career—a promotion focus—can help women develop effective cognitive strategies to cope with the challenges they face in STEM fields. A promotion focus encourages a new type of flexible thinking that can change the way women perceive their own careers. This thought process also stimulates creativity, which ultimately will help them flourish in scientific and technical careers. What is more, the evidence from our studies and those of other investigators shows that a diverse workforce will foster innovative ideas from men and women alike.

Learning from behavioral science

Research in social cognition reveals that focusing on the benefits of a career can counteract a well-known effect of bias: the psychological phenomenon of stereotype threat. Even brief reminders of a commonly held stereotype—in this case, the idea that women are inherently less talented in math and science—can actually degrade performance.

In a 2012 study at Leiden University in the Netherlands, psychologists Tomas Ståhl, Colette Van Laar and Naomi Ellemers told female students they would be doing a task that tested gender differences in math skills, an instruction designed to elicit stereotype threat. Before turning to the task, the students were asked to solve a pencil-and-paper maze on behalf of a cartoon mouse. If the participants were told the mouse was at risk of being captured by an owl—that is, encouraged to enter into a prevention-focused mind-set—their math performance suffered. On the other hand, if they were encouraged to help the mouse reach a piece of cheese—a promotion focus—the stereotype threat had no impact.

Recent findings can help foster this beneficial mind-set. A new psychological exercise in thinking about professional gender roles indicates that if women persevere in careers in science, engineering and math despite the obstacles, they may ultimately improve their cognitive performance and develop more flexible thinking. In fact, the very same challenges that women face when confronting stereotypes may in the long run encourage creativity and cognitive resilience.

To better understand how this capacity develops, try this exercise: Imagine a female nurse. What words would you use to describe her? You might think of adjectives such as caring, empathetic and nurturing. Now picture a female engineer and the words you would use to describe her. That exercise would probably require more mental effort.

Over time this cognitive exertion may change the way you think. In a 2011 article in Psychological Bulletin, one of us (Crisp, along with co-author Rhiannon N. Turner) proposed that the mental effort of imagining someone behaving in nonstereotypical ways can actually make the mind stronger and more resilient. Just as the body eventually adapts to increased physical demands so that muscles become more powerful, the mind adjusts to the burden of deflecting stereotypes and becomes more efficient, improving cognitive performance.

A growing body of research supports this idea. Interventions that encourage people to challenge stereotypes also foster lateral thinking—the use of indirect and novel approaches to solving problems—along with general creativity and mental flexibility. In a 2013 study conducted by Crisp and psychologist Milica Vasiljevic, now at the University of Cambridge, participants wrote down five pairings of gender and occupation that either conformed to stereotypes (for example, female nurse) or did not (female mechanic). Those who had to stretch their minds to come up with less predictable combinations, such as female firefighter or male midwife, subsequently stigmatized others to a lesser extent, as measured by their choices on a questionnaire. They also showed superior lateral thinking. For instance, they were more likely to correctly answer the question “If a plane crashes on the Italian-Swiss border, where do you bury the survivors?” (Solution: you don't, because the survivors all survived.)

If merely thinking against stereotypes can stimulate creativity and mental flexibility, what about actually living a life that defies gender conventions? In a 2008 study Chi-Ying Cheng of Singapore Management University and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Fiona Lee, both at the University of Michigan, found that female engineering students who were comfortable with their dual identities performed better on a creativity task (designing a mobile communications device targeted at women) than those who struggled to integrate these two roles. The finding suggests that women who challenge stereotypes in their educational and career choices might develop precisely the cognitive skills that are highly valued in STEM fields, such as innovative and flexible thinking. Indeed, a 2011 analysis by Catalyst, a research and advisory organization focusing on women's issues in the workplace, found that companies with a higher percentage of women on their boards have better financial performance and improved cost efficiency.

A new way to encourage women

These insights from behavioral science could inspire a wave of promotion-focused campaigns to improve the retention of women in STEM fields. Policy makers, the media, universities and recruitment teams could send a positive message to young women considering a career in science by highlighting the rewards to be reaped, such as high incomes and a relatively small gender-based pay gap. Educators could also emphasize the potential cognitive advantages associated with choosing counterstereotypical career paths.

Focusing on positive outcomes can nurture the confidence and inner drive to excel that are so clearly major components of success. Publicizing research on the benefits of a promotion-focused approach could motivate women to choose career paths precisely because they defy stereotypes. As this research reveals, women will not be the only ones to benefit: accepting women in roles traditionally assigned to men can encourage everyone to think against stereotypes, improving creativity, originality and mental flexibility for all.

3 Big Threats

Social science has identified three factors that contribute to an inhospitable environment for women in STEM fields:

The math myth
One popular explanation for the lack of women in STEM fields blames supposedly inherent gender differences in math and science proficiency. This observation is not very well supported by data. Instead gender differences in math performance are closely correlated with overall social markers of gender equality. For example, nations with a larger proportion of female parliament members also have a smaller gender gap in math performance.

Stereotype threat
In this well-documented phenomenon, the widespread belief that women are inherently inferior to men in science and math can itself handicap women's performance. Research finds that women know that they are not expected to perform as well as men and that other people may evaluate their performance according to this stereotype. This knowledge burdens women with additional cognitive demands, increasing the stress of test taking and hampering performance.

Implicit bias
The unconscious, automatic devaluation of women's abilities and contributions is pervasive at every step in the career path. For example, one recent study demonstrated that STEM faculty members judged job application materials from a potential female applicant more critically than when they were given identical materials and told the applicant was male. The male candidate was perceived as more competent and more employable. Research finds that academic scientists may see female doctoral students as less committed to academic careers than their male counterparts, and both experimental studies and citation surveys indicate that researchers consider established female scientists to be less appealing collaborators and perceive publications by them to be less worthy of citation.