Academic Proficiency Theory and Evidence

WomanWithBottle1024 Academic Proficiency Theory and EvidenceReview Recommendations, Strategies, Effective Practices, and Resources

What the Literature Says*


When women are academically proficient, they are more likely to persist in choosing nontraditional careers. Stereotype threat and lack of training in visual/spatial skills may erect barriers to achievement.


Academic proficiency was found to be the most predictive of educational factors for female NTO career choice persistence, and in personal factors, math self-efficacy (a self-perception of math ability) was the most predictive of personal factors. A survey of 1000 IT professionals indicated that “their own skills and abilities” motivated them to enter and persist in the IT field. Although gender-based differences in math course-taking and skills achievement are few, academic proficiency, especially in math and science courses, is still an issue that

demands our attention because mathematics-related careers and career aspirations do have many gender-based discrepancies. A survey of more than 1,500 college, high school and middle school students indicated that test anxiety and subject difficulty were the top perceived barriers for women in STEM careers.

Not as predictive for men. An updating of Lemkau’s (1984) study of men in atypical occupations by Lease, however, found that “perceived academic ability” did not predict atypical career choice and that higher academic ability actually predicted gender traditional occupations for men.

Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. This fear can sometimes affect performance and appears to be a very real part of the test anxiety and subject difficulty mentioned above. For example, when stereotype threat was high on an engineering skills test, women performed worse than men. When stereotype threat was not present, women performed as well as men. Also, if men and women with the same preparation for a math test are told that men generally do better on the test, men will outperform women. It also appears that actual gender differences on spatial ability tests may be “related to stereotype threat.” There is some evidence, however, that boys outperform girls on many tests of spatial skills, especially ones that require visualizing what an object will look like when it is rotated in space.

*Please note that author/date callouts to references and full references can be found in the Print Form of the Root Causes document. You will be asked to complete a brief survey about your intended use of the document. The PDF will download after the survey is submitted. Thank you for your assistance!