The Problem With Women and Science: It’s Hormonal — Or Is It?

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A new study of an unusual genetic disorder may shed light on the long-running and valiantly argued debate over whether women are underrepresented in scientific careers because of biology or because of cultural influences and discrimination.

Researchers at Penn State University looked at teenagers and young adults who were exposed to abnormally high levels of the male hormone androgen while in the womb. Compared with their siblings who were not so exposed, they were demonstrably more interested in careers related to things — including science, technology, engineering and math — as opposed to careers related to people, the researchers found.

Fetal overexposure to androgen is one of the results of a genetic abnormality known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). The condition affects both boys and girls, but is typically less apparent in boys. Girls and women with CAH are genetically female, and are treated as such, but they may exhibit traits like facial hair and ambiguous genitalia.

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The new study by Sheri A. Berenbaum, professor of psychology and pediatrics at Penn State, included 125 young people in all, 73 with CAH and 52 of their siblings who did not suffer from the condition. Berenbaum and her team gauged the participants’ levels of interest in the so-called STEM careers: science, technology, engineering and math.

Not only were the young women with CAH more interested in such careers than their non-affected sisters, but the more androgen they had been exposed to in utero, the more they leaned toward those vocations. The young men with CAH did not differ as much in their career preferences as their typical brothers; both were equally interested in STEM fields.

The findings suggest a biological influence on career choices, the author says. “We’re suggesting that these interests are pretty early developing,” says Berenbaum.

Does that mean the movement to draw women into the sciences is a waste of time? Not necessarily, says Adriene M. Beltz, a gradute student who worked with Berenbaum. “Maybe we could show females ways in which an interest in people is compatible with STEM careers.”

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Coincidentally, the preliminary results of another study released in August found that at community colleges, the gender disparity in the sciences is not as pronounced as at four-year or elite colleges, a result that suggests the imbalance is largely the result of cultural forces, rather than biology. STEM faculties at community colleges have almost a 50/50 gender split. The National Science Foundation study, which is still underway, seeks to analyze why community colleges do better on this front.

One professor in Ohio, where the results are already in, says it has to do with the schools’ culture and environment. “The women [faculty members] are happy, they have pay equity, and there are more of them than at four-year colleges,” said Cynthia Anderson, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Ohio University.

Another tick in the nurture column is this fascinating study from India dug up by Healthland contributor Maia Szalavitz, which finds that a tribe’s expectations of women’s math competency almost completely overrides any gender differences in aptitude.

So is a bias towards the people-centric careers (teaching, social work) and away from the STEM careers (surgery, IT) a result of biology or inclination? Probably both. But it might help to redress the imbalance if working with people and working with things were equally remunerative.