Study: Are Women Choosing Romance Over Math and Science?

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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.”

Intuitively, the findings seem to make sense, but one big limitation of this last experiment is that researchers didn’t ask about non-STEM activities. It’s entirely possible that on days on which women were preoccupied with dating, they simply did less homework all around — math, English or otherwise.

“Those aren’t things we assessed in this study,” Park acknowledges, “though we asked about attitudes toward the arts in one of the conversation experiments. But it’s a direction for future research.”

Further, on days when women reported focusing on academic achievement, their feelings of desirability remained unchanged — which contradicts the theory that women think being brainy is a turn-off.

There were some additional limitations: all experiments looked only at the short-term impact of thoughts about dating; it’s unclear whether romantic pursuits may also lead to long-term outcomes like grades in STEM classes or later employment in science or math.

The study also did not clearly determine whether the romantic photos and conversations primed people to actively want to be desirable, or merely reminded them of romance as a general concept.

Since Monday, when the research was released, Park has been fielding criticism that her hypothesis is sexist and reinforces stereotypes that will only make it harder for women to enter STEM fields. (“No, the research wasn’t sponsored by Mattel,” joked Forbes’ J. Maureen Henderson.)

Park was surprised by the reaction. “It was not the intention or interpretation I had,” she says. “Women are exposed to sociocultural messages about the importance of being attractive and sexy and especially attuned to these goals in young adulthood. That’s precisely the time that women start to show less interest in STEM fields. It’s not something internal about them — it’s the socialization practices.”

Either way, the fact is that there are still not enough women working in the sciences. The reasons are many and varied — demands on family life and lack of role models, for instance — but whether interest in landing a man is one of them is still up for debate.

The study [PDF] was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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