How Cultural Stereotypes Lure Women Away From Careers in Science

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Women may be underrepresented in science and technology not because they are less skilled in those areas or because they face specific gender barriers to entering these fields, but because they may find better opportunities elsewhere.

That’s the conclusion from a new study by Ming-Te Wang and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh. According to the researchers, women have broader intellectual talents, which provide them with more occupational options.

The group analyzed data involving 1,500 college-bound students of above average intelligence, who were part of a long-term study. They were first surveyed in 1992 when they were high school seniors and then reinterviewed by phone at age 33 in 2007.

The results, published in the journal Psychological Science, found dramatic differences by gender in the areas in which men and women excelled. Among who had highest scores on both the verbal and the math sections of the SAT, for example, nearly two-thirds were female, while only 37% were male.

(MORE: When Men Stop Seeking Beauty and Women Care Less About Wealth)

Among those who excelled in one area but not the other, 70% of those with high math and lower verbal scores were male, while 30% were female. For high verbal skills but lower math scores, the numbers were exactly reversed: 70% of high verbal scorers who didn’t do as well in math were female, compared with 30% for the males.

Of those who scored best across the board, 34% choose a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) — but 49% of those who did better in math than in language skills chose a STEM career. Given the gender difference among those scoring higher in math than in language, that meant fewer capable women wound up in science and mathematical fields.

The researchers also examined and controlled for other factors that might affect career choices such as the socioeconomic status of the participants’ parents, their own values when it came to balancing work and family, and their personal perceptions about their skills and interests; still, the breakdown between verbal and math skills remained a strong predictor of career choice.

But what interested the researchers most was the fact that more women than men tended to show aptitude in both math and language skills, and yet the rate of women choosing STEM careers remains low. Are women discouraged from these fields, or are they simply not interested in them for other reasons? To find out, the scientists also questioned participants about their math and English “self concepts,” or how good they thought they were at those subjects and how much they enjoyed them. People tend to play to their strengths: for those who think they are best at English, it may not matter that they may also be math geniuses compared with their peers. They’ll pick what comes easiest and gets the most support.

That may be why fewer women, despite the fact that they have the aptitude for it, enter STEM fields. It’s cultural stereotypes that may be indirectly pushing women away from scientific fields. If you are highly skilled in two areas but one is more in line with social stereotypes and has richer social support that affirms that skill, it’s not surprising that would be the talent you choose to develop.

And social forces in this area are powerful. In fact, data from nearly 300,000 students in 40 countries who took an international test showed that in countries where women are treated more equally, no gender gap exists in math and science scores, and in a few countries, women even do better. In more equal countries, not only are women seen as equally capable of math performance, but both genders have government-required paid family leave available to them, as well as free or cheap access to high-quality day care, making the pursuit of demanding careers in science and technology easier and female role models who do it more visible.

(MORE: The Math Gender Gap: Nurture Trumps Nature)

In countries where such equal opportunities in STEM careers aren’t available, where using words to win is seen as a more appropriate career for a woman and where women’s confidence in their math skills is consistently undermined, then women may find the support and options in nonscience fields more appealing. “Our study provides evidence that it is not lack of ability that causes females to pursue non-STEM careers, but rather the greater likelihood that females with high math ability also have high verbal ability and thus can consider a wider range of occupations than their male peers,” the authors write.

If that’s the case, then addressing the gender gap in STEM careers isn’t so much about boosting women’s aptitude in math and science — their results show that’s not the issue — but in making careers in these areas more welcoming, accessible and financially attractive.

10 comments
KellyWright
KellyWright

I've been employed in the  Radiation Protection field for over 20 years.  And based on what I have seen with women in Stem fields is that they leave all together to either (1) teach, (2) start/raise a family, (3) move on to another career field all together.

Making money is not a major drive for women in general because they are taught to believe that one day a man will provide for them.  Not to say that women in many career fields don't make a good income, but if you belive you can "date up" and "marry up", the the drive to stay in STEM for the long run is not there, because you can pursue what your heart desires and can be considered as a humanitarily interesting.

SabrinaSteve1
SabrinaSteve1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I've known a lot of females to be excellent in Math and Science but they stray away from careers in STEM fields because that isn't something that catches their attention. I think most women prefer to work in areas where the can be more social more than hands on. Me, myself I am going into the STEM field because I like to be hands on. Math & Science aren't my favorite subjects but it's always been the subjects that I've my best in. 

ummabdulla
ummabdulla like.author.displayName 1 Like

It should be noted that this is the case in the US and some other Western countries. In much of the world, girls do just as well (if not better) than boys in Math and Science, and cultural stereotypes don't keep women away from careers in STEM fields.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Okay, when are we going to stop playing gender politics with major industries (i.e. medicine, science, politics, etc.)?

I get tired of reading articles about how women are under-represented in this field and that field.  Could it be that those fields are just not that desirable to women?  Perhaps the interest is lacking?

We have to stop pretending that we're living in the 1970s.  The "gender revolution" / "women's rights movement" / "equal rights amendment" era is over.  These emotional-driven articles (i.e. "WE NEED MORE WOMEN IN ________") sound dated to our generation (I'm 25). 

Honestly, it's time to move on already.

roseofjuly
roseofjuly

@mrbomb13 First of all, a pay gap still exists between men and women, even when you hold constant career choice, years in the workforce, and family responsibilities.  Second of all, nobody is saying that about medicine anymore - women and men are almost at parity in medicine.

But did you just completely skip the article or what?  Because the point is, no, the women's rights era is not over (I'm 26).  Women are underrepresented in some fields and - as the article clearly points out, if you read it - it's NOT because those careers are undesirable to women. It's because our cultural stereotypes subtly but strongly encourage them into other fields.  Women who have aptitude and interest in both technical/scientific and verbal/social areas tend to go towards verbal/social simply because there's more social and cultural support for that choice.  Not surprisingly, either, women also tend to be underrepresented in careers with disproportionate social power and with significantly higher incomes.

Also, if women's interest is lacking in politics, maybe we need to do something to get more women interested in politics then.  I see much social and cultural value in having gender parity in the political sphere.

LokHupBaFa
LokHupBaFa

@mrbomb13 Except in other countries like Russia -- where the culture never had a belief that math was hard for girls, they have plenty of women engineers, India produces lots of women programmers....because the ideal that women can't do math was never part of their culture.  Do you really want half of the population to be missing from the fields that will design your future?  Do you think we can keep competing with countries that can draw on there full population for science related fields?   How we design the solutions to our future problems will be in the hands of engineers and politicians... and it matters who is working in those fields as to what type of solutions they come up with.... I want to see men and women working on the problems of tomorrow, not just men.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13 like.author.displayName 1 Like

First, thank you for your reply.  Due to the hectic pace of the workday, my response has been delayed; apologies for that delay.  So, without further ado:

1) I never said that I, "want[ed] half of the population to be missing from the fields that will design your future."  Instead, I merely posed the question as to whether countries were 1) keeping women out of those fields, or 2) women chose not to participate in those fields.  The article presumes that cultures are 'biased' against female participation, yet the author provides no evidence to support that presumption.

2) I never said that, "we can keep competing with countries that can draw on there full population for science related fields."  In fact, while women are encouraged to enter the sciences, many choose not to make that entrance.

3) "How we design the solutions to our future porblems" will occur in a similar manner as it has throughout history.  Breakthroughs will be made by men and women alike.  As history has shown, playing gender politics has not been necessary to advancing human civilization - especially since the vast majority of advances have been pioneered and improved upon by men.  So, the argument that gender equality (and, therefore, gender politicking) is necessary is invalid. 

osigoot
osigoot like.author.displayName 1 Like

The M in STEM stands for mathematics, not medicine.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

That reflects how much of the editorial staff (i.e. copy editors) TIME has had to lay-off in the last 5 years.

dgdoesstuff
dgdoesstuff

I actually ran into that a bit in High School.  I loved 2 of  my classes: Biology and Orchestra. Guess which one demanded extracurricular attention and time? Not Biology... :'(