Study Finds that Women Choose Not to Enter STEM Careers

March 25, 2013

Last week science blogger Elise Andrew found herself at the center of controversy when she shared her Twitter feed on her popular Facebook news feed, "I F***ing Love Science." Inside Higher Ed reports that hundreds of readers quickly responded to Andrew's post with shock and surprise, not because of its content, but because the attached photograph revealed her to be a woman. The incident highlighted an ongoing problem for women in science and math, most notably that there aren't many. A new study may shed some light on the reasons for the scarcity of women in these fields.

The study published last week by the Association for Psychological Science sought to discover why women are still less likely than men to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, despite their gains in math enrollment and performance over the last decade. The conclusion: Women neglect to pursue STEM fields not because of lack of ability, but because they often have competing strengths. More specifically, women demonstrating both mathematical and verbal proficiency are less likely to pursue careers in the former area.

"Our study shows that it's not lack of ability or differences in ability that orients females to pursue non-STEM careers, it's the greater likelihood that females with high math ability also have high verbal ability," said Ming-Te Wang, one of the study's co-authors and developmental psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, as reported by Business News Daily. "Because they're good at both, they can consider a wide range of occupations."

According to a press release from the APS, researchers examined data from nearly 1,500 college-bound U.S. students drawn from a national longitudinal study, including their SAT scores. Students were surveyed in grade 12, then again at the age of 33 when their careers were established. Wang and her colleagues found that students who had high math abilities were less likely to choose STEM occupations when they also demonstrated strong verbal ability, but that those who fared well in math but less so in verbal skills were more likely to choose careers in STEM.

Wang said the research reveals a critical link in the debate surrounding the dearth of women in STEM professions: Those who are most successful in math tend to define themselves by that strength and are therefore more drawn to careers that apply it. She believes the results underscore a necessary policy shift for schools that hope to increase female participation in math-intensive careers.

"Educators and policymakers may consider shifting the focus from trying to strengthen girls' STEM-related abilities to trying to tap the potential of these girls who are equally skilled in both math and verbal domains," Wang said, as reported by Business News Daily.

Meanwhile, Andrew's social media incident last week highlights a persistent gender bias in STEM, one that Inside Higher Ed suggests will likely continue until more women choose to enter the field, much to Andrew's dismay.

"As someone Tweeted to me, it's a sad day when a woman being funny and interested in science is considered newsworthy," said Andrew, as reported by Inside Higher Ed. "Is this really 2013?"

Compiled by Aimee Hosler


"Math Careers Just Don't Add Up For Women,", March 20, 2013, Chad Brooks

"More Career Options May Explain Why Fewer Women Pursue Jobs in Science and Math,", March 19, 2013, Anna Mikulak

"Rorschach on Women and Science,", March 22, 2013, Scott Jaschik

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