Several decades of effort have improved the participation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but the gender gap remains. Researchers have found diverse reasons for women’s underrepresentation in STEM, but less is understood about factors supporting persistence. This study’s purpose was to understand how women persist in STEM, through the lens of self-determination theory. Self-determination theory posits that persistence improves when one’s needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are satisfied. This embedded mixed methods study provides evidence of how autonomy, competence, relatedness, and sociocultural factors influence women’s persistence in STEM. Using network and snowball sampling, the researcher recruited 641 diverse women with 6+ years of STEM experience for an anonymous online survey. The instrument included the 24-item Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction and Frustration Scale (BPNSFS) and several open-ended questions. Statistical analyses resulted in findings of high satisfaction and low frustration levels of autonomy, competence, and relatedness among the STEM persisters. Competence was rated highest in satisfaction and relatedness rated lowest in frustration. Significant associations were found between persistence and the combined satisfaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, as well as for the satisfaction score for competence. Educational attainment level, race, living in a rural area, and occupation also showed significant associations with persistence. Thematic analyses of narrative responses revealed qualitative support for the BPNSFS results, including 17 satisfaction themes, with the most prevalent being social support, communal benefit, enjoyment, and self-efficacy. Ten frustration themes emerged, with the most prevalent being lack of relatedness and lack of knowledge. In addition to affirming the influence of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, participants’ narratives indicated six sociocultural themes, including discrimination and bias, and career and money. By integrating quantitative and qualitative findings, four conclusions were determined. First, that women in the study were highly satisfied overall, and second, that they have persisted despite negative experiences with discrimination and bias. Third, organizations must support women’s autonomy, competence, relatedness, and financial equity to promote persistence. Finally, there are career trajectory points where risk of attrition is more likely to occur. Recommendations include programs to promote women’s interest, self-efficacy, and belonging in STEM.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Persistence; Women in science; Women in technology; Women in engineering; Women in mathematics

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Kay Davis

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