Carpe Diem

New study suggests women are underrepresented in STEM fields by choice, because they have more career options

From a press release from the Association for Psychological Science:

Women may be less likely to pursue careers in science and math because they have more career choices, not because they have less ability, according to a new study published in Psychological Science.

Although the gender gap in mathematics has narrowed in recent decades, with more females enrolling and performing well in math classes, females are still less likely to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) than their male peers. Researchers tend to agree that differences in math ability can’t account for the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. So what does?

Developmental psychologist Ming-Te Wang and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan wondered whether differences in overall patterns of math and verbal ability might play a role.

The researchers examined data from 1490 college-bound US students drawn from a national longitudinal study. The students were surveyed in 12th grade and again when they were 33 years old. The survey included data on several factors, including participants’ SAT scores, various aspects of their motivational beliefs and values, and their occupations at age 33.

Looking at students who showed high math abilities, Wang and colleagues found that those students who also had high verbal abilities — a group that contained more women than men — were less likely to have chosen a STEM occupation than those who had moderate verbal abilities.

Further analyses suggest that gender differences in career choice could be explained, at least in part, by differences in students’ combinations of abilities. According to Wang, this study identifies a critical link in the debate about the dearth of women in STEM fields.

“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,” notes Wang. “Because they’re good at both, they can consider a wide range of occupations.”

MP: An interesting alternative explanation to the “gender disparity proves discrimination” theory of female underrepresentation in STEM fields. And perhaps this suggests that the national effort and funding to increase female representation in STEM careers is being wasted, because women choose voluntarily not to pursue those fields?

HT: Milton Recht

7 thoughts on “New study suggests women are underrepresented in STEM fields by choice, because they have more career options

  1. I am suspicious of this finding. Based on the information you have posted here before, of the STEM-capable students one third were women and about one third of STEM degrees are awarded to women. This implies that, in general, women who are capable of earning STEM degrees do so.

    • You seem to be conflating the percentage of capable students at the beginning with the percentage of graduates at the end.

      One third of all candidates were women. Say we have 1000 candidates, that means that 333 were women. If all 1000 students entered the program (which has around a 50% attrition rate). At the program’s completion, only 500 degrees are awarded. If one third of those are to women, then logically that’s about 165 of the original 333.

      You said: “This implies that, in general, women who are capable of earning STEM degrees do so.”

      It actually implies that about 1/2 of the women who are capable of earning STEM degrees do so. Also, if you look at the results for the follow-up at 33 years old, you’ll see that many fewer women than men were still in their STEM fields after almost 10 years.

      So even when they make it into the fields they want, they don’t stay there. Hence underrepresentation.

      • You seem to be conflating the percentage of capable students at the beginning with the percentage of graduates at the end.

        Where do you see conflating? Your own comment suggests that 1/2 of all men enrolling and 1/2 of all women enrolling, finish and earn degrees. That is, the same percentage of women as men graduating, indicating equal capability and interest.

        Would you have preferred the statement: “This implies that, in general, women who are capable of – and interested in – earning STEM degrees do so.” ?

        So even when they make it into the fields they want, they don’t stay there. Hence underrepresentation.

        So, what’s the problem? Does “under-represented” mean there are women who are interested in, and capable of, STEM careers who aren’t in those careers?

      • AZ: re paragraph ending with “…then logically that’s about 165 of the original 333.”

        Fine, but that also means that men drop out in favour of other fields as well and at about the same rate. No difference between STEM-capable men and women.

        It actually implies that about 1/2 of the women who are capable of earning STEM degrees do so.

        And your assertion in your second paragraph implies that about half the STEM-capable men earn STEM degrees. No difference between STEM-capable men and women.

        Also, if you look at the results for the follow-up at 33 years old, you’ll see that many fewer women than men were still in their STEM fields after almost 10 years.

        Is this any different from any other demanding field? Women tend to drop out of the workforce in general at higher rates than men. Why should we expect demanding STEM fields to suffer a lower withdrawal rate?

        I have trouble with the term “underrepresented”. WTH does that mean? It appears that women are fully represented as per their ability and personal choices. Women are not underrepresented. These types of research projects are overfunded.

  2. I heard a commentary on the subject today on the radio that offers further insight into gender occupational differences. It discussed how women have sought jobs that offer greater flexibility, e.g.- the ability to quit and possibly come back whenever, usually due to child-rearing activities. These flexible jobs with those kinds of attributes usually pay considerably less.

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