Self–efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments.1 It reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment.1
Studies by American Association of University Women3 and others reveal that girls’ confidence in their ability to do math and science drops from age 12 onward through 18 as compared to their male peers. For those of us women who persist in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, it is often blatantly apparent that we are one of the few that remain in the “leaky pipeline”.
From my own experience, I know that my social environment has played a large role in my self-efficacy, especially around my perceived abilities as a scientist. I have had the fortune of community and family support from the beginning of my college education in physics to this day as I work as a Senior Scientist developing lithium ion batteries. Talking to my peers, other women in STEM, I find that many are first-generation engineers and scientists, and even first-generation college students. Many faced greater barriers and less social support, but managed to persist in STEM. No matter how different our background, we all seem to struggle with indicators of low self-efficacy, including the notorious imposter’s syndrome.
While outside of the classroom and my workplaces, I had full support of loved ones, inside academia and industry is a different story. As a white woman, sexist attitudes, slights, and comments have followed me throughout my entire career in physics and engineering. It is obvious to me that these microaggressions and harassment take a toll on my self-confidence and health. Despite my many privileges and accomplishments in my career, that voice that tells me I’ll never be smart enough continues to show up, especially during moments when my colleagues or bosses demonstrate their conscious or unconscious biases. Imagining what it must be like to experience not just sexism, but also perhaps racism, homophobia, and other prejudices in addition, I see why many people leave the field. There’s a point when career success is not worth compromising one’s wellbeing and health.
The nature of my work, scientific research, consistently puts me in the position of asking big questions that nobody knows the answer to. I joke with my friends saying “I feel dumb most of the time” because a primary focus of my work is to understand and interpret data to verify hypotheses. There is a lot of uncertainty, many theories, and often more questions than answers at the conclusion of an experiment. I love the research process, but with few achievements over a long period of time, the process can be taxing. The seeds of self doubt when I can’t seem to come up with a logical explanation for a data set can sprout into worse problems if I forget to remind myself that my work is challenging for anyone! There’s a reason electric vehicles are not the mainstream vehicle choice yet, and a large part of that is the advances in battery technology that are needed (which is what I’m working on along with MANY others).
Science is challenging. Engineering is hard work. Combine what is necessary to advance technology plus the emotional labor of dealing with bias, harassment, and discrimination, and it’s no wonder we all feel so full of self-doubt sometimes! When we think of it from that perspective, it becomes reasonable to have low confidence.
Indicators of Low Self-Efficacy
- Shy away from, or put off taking on tasks that they view as threatening or potentially damaging to their self-esteem.
- Have low aspirations and commitment to goals that they say on the on hand they want to pursue
- Focus on their deficiencies, obstacles, and adverse outcomes, rather than concentrating on how to perform a new task successfully.
- Slacken their efforts and give up quickly in the face of difficult challenges.
- Slow to recover their sense of confidence following failure or setbacks.
If you ever exhibit any of the above, it’s important to recognize what may be contributing toward your low self-efficacy and self-care so that you avoid burn-out and other health consequences. Operating at a state of high self-efficacy has many benefits:
Benefits of High Self-Efficacy
- Intentionally approach difficult tasks and treat them as challenges to be mastered and overcome.
- Set challenging goals and maintain a strong commitment to completing them, no matter how long it takes.
- Heightened or sustained efforts in the face of setbacks or failure.
- Attribute failures to reach goals to a lack of effort, insufficient knowledge or skills on their part, which are acquirable.
- Won’t take failure personally.
- Bravery in the face of challenges.
Now, to increase your self-efficacy there are several areas to focus on. According to the theory of self-efficacy, there are 4 sources from which you can gain self-efficacy.
4 Sources of Self-Efficacy
- Mastery – Experiencing success in smaller related tasks helps build confidence.
- Observation – If our peers are succeeding, then it may be likely we will succeed too.
- Persuasion – Positive and supportive group dynamics aid success.
- Emotion – How we perceive and interpret emotions. Mindset is what matters.
Tips for Boosting Self-Efficacy
- Join a small cooperative
- Select small, related goals
- Set a roadmap
- Avoid comparison
- Write self-affirming statements
- Support your contemporaries
- Collaborate with colleagues
- Avoid detractors or critics
- Find a coach or mentor
- Dedicate yourself to a daily practice
- Reframe the activities you dislike
- Change up your workplace environment
- Take time to analyze your emotions
- Accept feedback
- Watch your self talk
- Gather evidence of your success everyday
- Acknowledge success in others
- Embrace failures as part of the process
- Avoid familiar stressful situations
- Realize failures are due to insufficient knowledge
“Perceived self-efficacy is concerned with people’s beliefs in their capabilities to exercise control over their own functioning and over events that affect their lives. Beliefs in personal efficacy affect life choices, level of motivation, quality of functioning, resilience to adversity and vulnerability to stress and depression.”– Albert Bandura
Our degree of self efficacy around our ability to achieve goals in work and life are primarily shaped by our early years. Consistently applying some of the listed thoughts and behaviors can eventually change those beliefs.
Paying attention to our behaviors and motivations, improving self-regulation and perceived ability to achieve small wins can help us move towards what we want and reach our goals.
If you’re struggling with difficult situations involving bias, harassment, and discrimination as well as seeking a coach or mentor, check out The STEM Thrive Guides. The resources and online courses there provide what you need to navigate difficult situations at work and school, and once you complete the course you will have access to a list of verified mentors and coaches who want to support you!