Women are notoriously underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM, for short). Now a new study suggests it’s because women’s interest in romance may be getting in the way.
Only about a quarter of STEM jobs in the U.S. are held by women, and women who major in STEM in college are far more likely to enter unrelated fields after graduation, compared with men. Lora Park, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, wondered whether the old stereotype about how men don’t find brainy girls attractive could be holding some women back.
In a series of experiments, Park and her colleagues primed college men and women to think about dating, either by making them look at romantic pictures of beach sunsets, candles and the like, or having them overhear a researcher’s staged conversation about a recent date. Then the students were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their interest in STEM and their preference for academic majors.
Women who were primed to think about romance were less likely to be interested in STEM or to choose it as a major — but were more interested in majoring in such “feminine” subjects as English or foreign language — compared with women who were primed to think about intelligence or friendship. (Those cues involved pictures of books, libraries and glasses, or overheard conversations about a recent test or a visit from a friend.) For men, interest in STEM did not change regardless of what they were primed to think about.
Park and colleagues wrote:
When the goal to be romantically desirable is activated, even by subtle situational cues, women report less interest in math and science. One reason why this might be is that pursuing intelligence goals in masculine fields, such as STEM, conflicts with pursuing romantic goals associated with traditional romantic scripts and gender norms.
In a final experiment, 54 female students were recruited from a college math class and asked to fill out a daily checklist of goals and activities related to dating, academic achievement and homework for three weeks. All the women said they were interested in pursuing a degree or career in STEM.
But on days when women reported focusing more on dating-oriented goals than academics, their interest in math homework suffered, the researchers found. “[W]hen women were striving to be romantically desirable, they engaged in more romantic activities and felt more desirable but they engaged in fewer math activities (e.g., studying for math class, completing math homework),” wrote the researchers. “In contrast, on days when women were striving to do well academically, they engaged in more math activities.”