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27Mar 2013

Study on Gender Disparities in Science – Some See Free Choice, Others Cultural Stereotypes

Last week, an announcement went around about a new paper showing that women decline science/math jobs because we have more options. Right away I was eager to see how the press would cover it. As we learned from the Larry Summers incident a few years ago, discussing gender imbalances in certain technical professions can be politically explosive.

And the topic is close to home for me and probably many other readers of this site who turned away from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers in favor of journalism.

The study, published in Psychological Science, involved nearly 1500 college bound seniors who were first surveyed in high school and later at the age of 33.  The researchers reportedly looked at SAT scores and surveyed their subjects about beliefs, values and occupations.

The conclusion: People of both sexes who aced both the verbal and math aptitude tests tended to go for non-technical careers. But those versatile souls were much more likely to be women. The researchers found that men who are really good at math are less likely than women to be really good at English as well.

A few journalists took on the study. Chad Brooks wrote something for the Huffington Post headlined: Women’s STEM careers a matter of choice, not ability, study suggests.

Having skills suited for a variety of careers helps explain why few women pursue math and science jobs, new research finds.

A study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan revealed that women may be less likely to want careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) because they have more career choices, not because they have less ability.

The story adds little beyond a summary of the paper and press release, but it seems pretty faithful to the material.

Beryl Leiff Benderly took a similar approach in a short item for Science’s Science Careers feature: Do Superior Abilities Keep Women Out of STEM?

The authors of the study, she wrote….

argue that women who are fully capable of doing STEM work have broader career options than those available to men because their verbal abilities are superior, on average. Those women, the study's authors suggest, often take other opportunities, which they apparently find more attractive.

I wonder if they “apparently find” other options more attractive, or whether other career options really are more attractive. That would seem to be a matter of interpretation. Some may assume that science and engineering are the best of all possible occupations and anyone who goes into anything else must be a victim of some kind of insidious societal pressure. But I know that many journalists consider ours to be the best, most rewarding, most interesting of all possible professions. Many of us who make a living writing about science are thankful that someone else is willing do science. (Science writers are connected to STEM, but we’re more like flowers).  

There was a little more interpretation offered in a piece for Time’s Healthland feature by Maia Szalavitz. The headline took a very different spin: How Cultural Stereotypes Lure Women Away from Careers in Science.

The piece started with a straight summary of the researchers’ conclusion:

Women may be underrepresented in science and technology not because they are less skilled in those areas or because they face specific gender barriers to entering these fields, but because they may find better opportunities elsewhere.

According to the researchers, women have broader intellectual talents, which provide them with more occupational options.

The part about the cultural stereotypes doesn’t appear until the end as an answer to this question:  

Are women discouraged from these fields, or are they simply not interested in them for other reasons?

Here’s the supposed answer:

To find out, the scientists also questioned participants about their math and English “self- concepts,” or how good they thought they were at those subjects and how much they enjoyed them. People tend to play to their strengths: for those who think they are best at English, it may not matter that they may also be math geniuses compared with their peers. They’ll pick what comes easiest and gets the most support.

That may be why fewer women, despite the fact that they have the aptitude for it, enter STEM fields. It’s cultural stereotypes that may be indirectly pushing women away from scientific fields. If you are highly skilled in two areas but one is more in line with social stereotypes and has richer social support that affirms that skill, it’s not surprising that would be the talent you choose to develop.

The writing here is not very clear and the author goofed in defining the M in STEM as medicine. Would it even be featured in Healthland if she realized the M is for Mathematics?

The bigger problem with this piece is that it never answers the question it poses. People, male and female, tend to play to their strengths, yes, but what does that say about the role of cultural stereotypes in gender disparities? I wish someone had asked whether there were any differences between female and male members of that versatile group scoring high in both math and English.

The assumption about cultural stereotypes put forward by the Time Healthland piece would be better supported if the versatile men were more drawn to STEM careers and more confident of their math abilities than were equally versatile women. But that question remained frustratingly unanswered by any of the stories.

It’s a free country and people who get top math SAT scores don’t owe it to the world to take up technical professions. The question I think we should care about is whether there are women (and men too) who would be happiest, most fulfilled and most productive in STEM professions who are not getting the encouragement or the opportunities they need to succeed.


The poster seems to have mistaken--inexplicably--Beryl Benderly's desire to avoid making unfounded assumptions with a preference for mainstream science careers. Anyone  familiar with Beryl's previous writing (and Science Careers) would realize that, while we do our best to provide information, guidance, and support for those who pursue traditional careers in the sciences, since 1995 we hae worked hard to provide information on, and to promote, non-traditional careers for people with scientific training.

Jim Austin, Editor
Science Careers


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