Christina L. Hill


Self-attribution is how a person perceives their abilities based on many antecedents and consequences. Self-attribution also referred to as self-efficacy or self-perception, plays an important role in several learning theories including Atkinson’s, Bandura’s, Rotter’s, and Weiner’s. These motivational theories attribute self-efficacy in slightly different lights, but each comes to a similar conclusion. Atkinson finds that individuals who expect to succeed on a task are more likely to approach the task as well as the opposite, individuals who expect failure from a task are less likely to approach the task (Stipek, p. 57). Another way of thinking about Atkinson’s theory is the higher confidence a person has in their abilities equates to a higher probability of success. Bandura’s research finds that “people’s answers to the question, “Can I do this task?” is a critical determinant of their behavior” (Stipek, p. 41). A person perceives their competence at a certain level, therefore, affecting achievement-related behavior (Stipek, p. 75). Weiner’s theory concludes that if a person believes they are competent at a task then they will attribute their success to their abilities and effort while attributing their failures to other factors (Stipek, 2003). Similarly, Weiner finds that individuals who believe they are incompetent at a task will attribute their success to other factors and their failure to their ability (Stipek, 2003). Rotter’s theory focuses on what he calls the Locus of Control, which equates task confidence with task rewards (Stipek, 2003). Pintrich (2003) states that:

“the general trend is that students who believe they have more personal control of their own learning and behavior are more likely to do well and achieve at higher levels than students who do not feel in control, such as those who are often labeled as learned helpless” (p. 673).

Stipek (2003) writes “the reasons for the gender differences are no doubt deeply embedded in cultural stereotypes and the messages that teachers and parents subtly convey to boys and girls. Perhaps this is why perceptions of ability become more sex-role stereotyped as children get older (p. 85). There are gender stereotypes found in everyday life. These biases start from adolescence and follow men and women into their careers and beyond. Research states that gender stereotypes play into men and women’s self-perceptions starting as early as elementary school, “negatively affect(ing) their career choice and achievements in adulthood” (Zhau, Zhang, Alterman, & Zhang, 2018). The Journal of Educational Resources supports that “self-efficacy is considered as a significant determinant of career aspirations” (Tahira, Akhter, & Javed, 2019). Another research study finds that “self-efficacy plays a decisive role on human behavior in every age group and gender by affecting manifold personal dimensions such as goal setting, aspirations, focus, expectations, and the perception of obstacles or opportunities in the surrounding social (or school) environment” (Codella, Puci, Vandoni, Correale, Gamvani, Togni, & La Torre, 2020). A study focused specifically on gender stereotypes in occupational choice confirms that “students express professional interests consistent with stereotypical patterns” (Ramaci, Pellerone, Ledda, Presti, Squatrito, Rapisarda, 2020). Further exploring the available literature can help to explain how self-attribution is a critical factor in men’s and women’s career decisions.

Literature Review

There are several studies and much literature concerning the topic of self-efficacy and its effects on men and women’s occupation. Men consistently tend to score themselves higher on self-perception questionnaires compared to women (Dilekli and Tezci, 2020). Many journals attribute the effects to several factors including gender stereotypes, education, parents, and the parent’s occupational role. This is evidenced in one study stating, “in particular, during childhood, teachers and parents, through their expectations about behavior, roles, and attitudes of children, tend to influence the gender socialization processes that guide males and females toward professions deemed appropriate to the belonging gender” (Ramaci, Pellerone, Ledda, Presti, Squatrito, Rapisarda, 2020). Research finds an “educational and professional segregation of gender, which tends to consider exclusively professional options connected to gender typing” (Ramaci, Pellerone, Ledda, Presti, Squatrito, Rapisarda, 2020). Examples of this include males taking on occupations in fields such as military, construction, science, and technology while females tend to work in education, hospitality, and nursing fields (Ramaci, Pellerone, Ledda, Presti, Squatrito, Rapisarda, 2020). One statistic reports that only 20% of bachelor’s degrees from 2014 in a STEM field were awarded to women (Henderson, Sawtelle, & Nissen, 2020).  Another journal provides evidence that a “lack of career persistence for women in non-traditional professions such as science, technology, engineering, and math professions has also been attributed to social psychological factors including self-efficacy, stereotype threat, and bias” (Smith and Rosenstein, 2017). Men’s and women’s self-perception can be observed early on and also determined by research-based surveys and questionnaires. The surveys used to measure self-efficacy are often based on a scale where the individual rates themselves, their performance, and/or attitudes towards a task. Stipek (2003) provides several survey examples in her book, Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice. Another example is the questionnaire called the New General Self-Efficacy scale. This questionnaire operates on a 1-5 Likert-type scale and consists of eight questions such as “I believe I can succeed at most any endeavor to which I set my mind” (Dilekli and Tezci, 2020). In one study done by Sarah Clement (1987), a questionnaire was used asking men and women about different occupations and their efficacy expectations. The study found that men rate their self-efficacy higher than women in 9 out of 10 of the traditionally male occupations and 7 out of 10 of the traditionally female occupations (Clement, 1987). Although the research can sometimes be inconsistent, studies often find the same results when it comes to girls’ and boys’ self-attribution in math and science. Several studies state that girls tend to rate their self-perception lower than boys in math and science even though girls often outperform boys in these subjects in adolescence (Stipek, 2003). Stipek (2003) addresses this by writing, “girls’ relatively low perceptions of competence in math and science, for example, probably contributes to females’ underrepresentation in these stereotypically male professions” (p. 85). Parents often play a role in gender self-attribution as well. Evidence in Stipek’s (2003) book reports:

“That girls may be more influenced by parental evalu­ations than are boys and also that parents tend to view boys as more competent in math and science. Eccles, for ex­ample, reports that the mothers in her studies who had stereotyped beliefs about math competency (i.e., believed that boys are naturally more talented than girls), rated sons’ competencies higher than daughters’ competencies. Parents also re­ported less time working or playing on the computer with girls than with boys, and they report that they encourage girls less than boys to do math or science ac­tivities (Eccles, 1993)” (p. 85).

The self-attribution that girls and boys develop as adolescents continue to develop, with additional influences, into adulthood and occupational choices.

Practical Recommendations

There is much research with similar results indicating the crucial role played by gender self-attribution in career choice followed by some practical recommendations stated. There are several statistics evidencing the differences in self-perceptions between men and women such as a national poll from 1994 reporting “that 52% of high school boys think they would enjoy being scientists, in contrast to only 29% of high school girls” (Dawes, Horan, & Hackett, 2000). This leaves the question of where to begin addressing this motivational gap. Research shows that self-attribution gaps begin early on. Stipek (2003) writes:

“The positive effects of encouragement are evident in a study involving interviews of females who had successful careers in mathematics, technology, and science. All of the women interviewed referred to individuals who had expressed confidence in their competencies and encouraged them to persevere in math and science” (p. 43).

Instructors and parents can focus on encouraging individuals, regardless of gender, with all careers in mind while also trying to avoid gender stereotypes. Journals currently address:

“Parents’ and teachers’ stereotyped beliefs guide the future attitudes of males toward typically male disciplines such as mathematics, influencing the levels of self-efficacy and subsequent career choices. As a result, females tend to regard mathematics as belonging to a particular male environment and show a less positive attitude toward this discipline. All this will tend to influence, in both male and female students, the design of their professional future” (Ramaci, Pellerone, Ledda, Presti, Squatrito, Rapisarda, 2020).

Another study indicates that “the discrepancy between performance and stereotypes makes it more significant to intervene with early adolescent girls’ math-gender stereotypes since the negative math-gender stereotypes may have a long-lasting effect on girls’ future motivation for math-related careers and choice of math-related domain” (Zhao, Zhang, Alterman, & Zhang, 2018). Studies, similar to the above-mentioned ones, address the restructuring of parent and instructor attitudes as a practical recommendation found in several pieces of literature.  Instructor attitudes can also include each person involved in an individual’s education. Tahira, Akhter, and Javed (2019) believe that “counselors should be careful throughout (the) career guidance process with different genders”. High school students begin considering their career path often with the help of their school counselor. Reshaping school personnel’s attitudes towards what might be labeled as a traditionally female or male occupation are also recommended.

Stipek (2003) points out that “some motivation theorists propose that the changes that typically occur when children transition to middle school are the opposite of what young adoles­cents need” (p. 89). The changes Stipek (2003) is referring to are increased competition, social comparative information (GPA and grades), and normative criteria. Some normative criteria examples Stipek (2003) provides are grades becoming more aligned with test performance, tasks less focused on effort, and tasks more focused on intellectual skills. These changes lead to lower self-attribution in adolescents which then carries on to affect their future career choices. Instructional designers can adopt practical recommendations as well when designing material. Being aware of gender stereotypes is important for all who play a role in a person’s self-attribution. Motivational theories would be great for all individuals to study in order to make themselves aware, begin to recognize and reshape their own self-perceptions.


Atkinson, Bandura, Rotter, and Weiner all highlight the importance of self-perception in their motivational theories. Journals often reference their research in their studies. Statistics show that a person’s self-attribution impacts their success and career goals. The effects are shown in a study done by Rosenthal, Guest, and Peccei (1996) highlighting the differences between men’s and women’s explanations for their work performance. The study surveyed men and women about successes and failures. In the case of success, the survey asked for the individuals to identify skills and abilities, effort, and ease of the task. In the case of failure, the factors included deficiencies in skills and abilities, lack of effort, and the difficulty of the task (Rosenthal, Guest, & Peccei, 1996). The results suggest:

“A tendency for women to perceive the causality of their own performance less favourably, for example to attribute their success less strongly to ability and, conversely, to be readier than men to believe that their failures result from lack of ability” (Rosenthal, Guest, & Peccei, 1996).

Studies showing the effects of self-efficacy in adolescents support the studies showing the effects of self-efficacy in adulthood and occupational choice. Even when women find themselves in a traditionally male occupation, they negatively attribute their ability in the face of failure. Following the practical recommendations provided above is a way to start to remedy this motivational gap. Research studies in the future will hopefully find slightly different results and be able to attribute the changes to changes made with gender stereotypes, education, and parent influence. When designing instruction, instructional designers can use the research and motivational theories mentioned as references and guidelines for positive impacts. Stipek (2003) writes about how positive perceptions of one’s ability is crucial to achievement. Her book references all four of the social cognitive theories in the first paragraph in chapter 6, indicating the importance of these theories and their ideas (Stipek, p. 75). Stipek (2003) summarizes the importance of self-attribution by writing “that perceptions of ability influence task choice, course choice, intended effort, persistence, thoughts and feelings while working on tasks, evaluations and attributions about one’s performance, and ultimate achievement” (Stipek, p. 75). These abstract and concrete ideas have a lasting effect on men and women in adolescents and beyond into their future careers.


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