Why Girls Don’t Want STEM Careers

Given the funding NSF has put into STEM issues, I’m not ruling out that they would be willing to commit a few felonies in order to get some answers. Fortunately, it appears they may get some answers the old fashion way. A new study by a group of researchers from the University of Miami finds more evidence for the theory that female disinterest in STEM careers is due to a higher desire to facilitate communal goals.

In their initial study the Miami researchers found that women are more likely than men to endorse communal goals, and that STEM careers are perceived as more likely to impede communal goals. However, there was no causal evidence that these beliefs affected career choice. In the follow up study they sought to confirm the causal connection with experimental evidence.

The researchers first activated communal goals in some of the subjects and then asked all subjects about their interest in STEM careers. The results showed that the activation of communal goals decreased interest in STEM careers in both sexes, but had no effect on interest in female-stereotypic careers or non-STEM male-stereotypic careers. In a follow up experiment subjects were given descriptions of various careers that related to collaborative or independent work (e.g. “Mentor new members of my statistics group in doing data analysis.”) Women, but not men, were more likely to favor careers that they were told involved more collaborative work. The results from the two studies provide robust support for the idea that women shy away from STEM carreers because they perceive them to impede the facilitation of communal goals.

In the past, the simple explanation for the lack of women in STEM fields was that it was a PR problem. Because the fields were full of men, women didn’t feel like they would be comfortable there. The good news about these findings is that even though they provide a more scientifically rigorous social-cognitive explanation, the prescription is essentially the same. It’s a PR problem in need a PR solution. Now that science has done its job it’s time for NSF to hire a fancy advertising agency to convince girls that scientists and engineers don’t sit in a lab by themselves for 10 hours a day.
Diekman, A., Clark, E., Johnston, A., Brown, E., & Steinberg, M. (2011). Malleability in communal goals and beliefs influences attraction to stem careers: Evidence for a goal congruity perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (5), 902-918 DOI: 10.1037/a0025199

3 Responses to Why Girls Don’t Want STEM Careers

  1. Ruth says:

    My daughter wants to save endangered animals and sees STEM as the way to do that. We need to show how science and technology is needed to advance communal goals.

  2. I’m happy that things are changing on the female front as far as career opportunities go, but there obviously is still a long ways to go. Girls still meet with discouragement over pursuing traditionally male occupations (thank goodness not to the extent they did in the 60’s-70’s when I was in school), but I agree, there still is a lot of PR work needed with science careers for females

  3. Alex says:

    Thanks for pointing me to that article! Was exactly the type of study that i was looking for!

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