Why some women may choose not to enter STEM careers

The lack of women pursuing science careers has been a perennial hot topic. Unfortunately, scant progress has been observed in spite of a vast amount of effort on many fronts to address this inequality. Earlier this month, a special issue of Nature was devoted to the subject.

Coincidentally, an attempt to unearth possible causes of this disparity was a study published earlier this month in Psychological Science, entitled “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” by Ming-Te Wang, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, and Sarah Kenny, from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan. Although I’m likely to give this study short shrift by not going into enough detail, let’s focus on the source material. Here’s the full abstract of the original paper:
The pattern of gender differences in math and verbal ability may result in females having a wider choice of careers, in both science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and non-STEM fields, compared with males. The current study tested whether individuals with high math and high verbal ability in 12th grade were more or less likely to choose STEM occupations than those with high math and moderate verbal ability. The 1,490 subjects participated in two waves of a national longitudinal study; one wave was when the subjects were in 12th grade, and the other was when they were 33 years old. Results revealed that mathematically capable individuals who also had high verbal skills were less likely to pursue STEM careers than were individuals who had high math skills but moderate verbal skills. One notable finding was that the group with high math and high verbal ability included more females than males.
Many previous studies by other researchers were cited as motivators behind some of the key questions this study poses. The study contains a number of controls that, to me at least, seem sensible and appropriate:
We controlled for several important confounds that are highly related to individual career choices in math-intensive fields: family socioeconomic status, math courses taken, and motivational beliefs and values.
Ability was measured by using the associated sections of the SAT taken by the study participants when they were high school seniors. The participants were then binned into three groups—high, moderate, and low for math and verbal ability, considered separately. I have a lot of skepticism regarding whether a person’s abilities are accurately gauged by standardized testing, even though (or maybe because) I personally benefitted from my performance on such testing back in the day. But the test results are probably the most easily attainable and least subjective data out there (though still full of subjective flaws in how tests are written). This longitudinal study then queried the same people roughly fifteen years later, to see in what type of career these people now found themselves. All had achieved a minimum of four-year college degrees.
Specifically, the likelihood of choosing STEM occupations was similar for females and males in the high-math/high-verbal ability group. However, participants with better math-ability self-concepts were more likely to select STEM occupations, and math-ability self-concepts had a stronger impact on participants in the high-math/moderate-verbal ability group than on those in the high-math/high-verbal ability group.
Of course, correlation is not causation. Speculation on the causes can provide some diverse interpretation of the results. Here are some excerpts of the authors’ conclusions from the discussion section of the article:
Students with high math and high verbal abilities presumably have a greater range of both STEM and non-STEM career opportunities to choose from, compared with their peers who have high math ability but moderate verbal ability. Notably, the high-math/high-verbal ability group included more females than males. This is an important finding that contributes to current understanding of females’ underrepresentation in STEM fields. 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 with high math ability, who are more likely to have moderate verbal ability.
At the end of the study article, the authors conclude with: “it is likely that individuals with high math and high verbal ability (who in this study were predominantly female) believe in their potential to succeed in both STEM and non-STEM occupations. These individuals may also feel they are in a position to consider how a STEM or a non-STEM occupation will fulfill their life goals and values.” There’s a flipside to this particular interpretation that troubles me a little. I find it hard to believe that women in STEM careers are somehow deficient in their ability to communicate when compared to those in non-STEM careers. By saying this, I am in no way trying to ingratiate myself with my wife, daughter, or female colleagues. Not. At. All. Also, I think this study highlights commonality among a subgroup of women who choose non-STEM careers, rather than a cause for that choice. The study contains no information regarding each participant’s career path toward their current position at age 33. My turn to speculate and pose a couple of questions. First, did any of the non-STEM career participants in the high verbal, high math group initially pursue a STEM career and then opt out? If so, what is the gender distribution within this subgroup? Such an examination may have shown nothing, but I would like to have seen it. An article last week by Maia Szalavitz in Time, discusses this study and is entitled “How Cultural Stereotypes Lure Women Away From Careers in Science.” While I might quibble a bit with some conclusions extrapolated from and superimposed on the study results, Szalavitz concludes with an observation that strikes me as spot-on: “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.” The study authors also blogged about their findings at The Huffington Post. They conclude there with:
Finally, we suggest that it is time to reframe the STEM gender debate. Instead of focusing on what girls don't have when it comes to mathematics, we need to focus on what they do have, and how to tap into it. It is up to educators, policymakers, and employers to make the STEM pathway, at all stages, more welcoming to women and girls. Until this happens, we cannot be surprised that millions of math-capable females continue to opt for non-STEM careers, in which they are equally able to excel.
I couldn't agree more. It’s part of the fallacy of much of the cheerleading for increasing STEM education in general which, at times, fails to address the quantity and quality of careers that await new graduates. I feel it's not enough to foster an interest in STEM. Those careers need to be perceived as attractive for the long haul. No small feat, that.    

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/glenernst

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