Fewer Women Are In Science Because They Have More Options
March 20, 2013

More Options, Not Inability, Explains Why Fewer Women Have Science Jobs

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Having a greater number of career options rather than lack of ability, may help explain why fewer women than men pursue careers in math and science, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.

Although the gender gap in mathematics has narrowed in recent years, females are still less likely to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) than their male peers.

If differences in ability don´t account for this underrepresentation, then 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 1,490 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 individuals 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. Wang said the study identifies a critical link in the debate over 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,” he said.

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

Interestingly, study participants who reported feeling more able and successful at math were more likely to end up in a STEM-related job, particularly those who had high math and moderate verbal abilities. Thus math abilities may play a more integral role in these individuals´ sense of identity, tending to draw them toward STEM occupations.

Considerable investments have been made in designing and testing a wide variety of intervention programs to increase female participation in math-intensive careers. Wang said the current findings suggest that “educators and policy makers 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.”