Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why don't girls choose science?

There is a stereotype in the United States that girls are less skilled when it comes to math and science. It’s a fact that women are less likely to pursue careers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering & math). There are many explanations for why this might be; interest and ability being among the most investigated and potentially controversial. Much of the controversy, you can imagine is around whether girls really are less able to pursue STEM careers. That being said, a colleague reminded me this week that, where he is from in China, girls are expected to be better than boys at math and science. Likewise, I have heard similar reports from a mentor who raised her children in the Paris public school system. Her daughter was shocked to come to the US and find that her teachers and peers expected her to struggle in math because she was a girl. However, despite the differences in stereotypes across the globe, women are universally less likely to pursue careers in STEM fields. In fact, the European Commission even developed a poorly received* advertising campaign to entice young women into science called, “Science: It’s a Girl Thing.” Luckily, whether or not ability is the true explanation for fewer women pursuing STEM careers is an empirical question.
In March, Ming-Te Wang, a developmental psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues published an article addressing the question:

Why don’t women choose science?

To answer this, they followed 1,490 students from 12th grade to age 33. In 12th grade, the students provided their math and verbal SAT scores. With the students’ SAT scores, they identified several groups of students with similar ability levels. For example, there was a group of students with high scores on both the math and verbal SAT subtests. There were also groups of students with high math scores but moderate verbal scores, and moderate math scores but high verbal scores. Dr. Wang and his colleagues found that 63% of the high-high group was female, while boys composed 70% of the high math-moderate verbal group. Overall, there were no differences between girls and boys in their performance on the SAT math, only the pattern of ability between the two tests.

Fifteen years later, these students were re-contacted and asked to share their occupations with the research team. They found that individuals in the high-high group were less likely to end up in STEM careers, while individuals in the high math-moderate verbal group were the most likely to end up in STEM careers. These findings remained even after accounting for the influence of the number of math classes taken, parent income, parent level of education, the students’ feelings about math (e.g., “I generally have fun when I am learning math” or “I am good at math”) and the students’ preferences for careers that are “people-centered” or not. As an explanation, the authors explain that individuals who have high ability in both verbal and math domains have a wider range of options for careers, and thus only those who really choose science end up there. In comparison, the students who had high scores in math, but lower scores on the verbal sub-test may have had a narrower skill set with which to choose a career with potential for success. In sum, these data begin to suggest that women don’t choose science because they are over-qualified or simply uninterested.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that these researchers were very interested in how self-concept, or how the student felt about their abilities in math related to their performance and eventual career choice. What they found is that higher scores in math were not simply positively related to math self-concept, but rather there is a need for specificity. In plain English, this means that the students with high math scores but moderate verbal scores had higher math self-concept than the students who scored high on both. Thus, it could be that the students who have the highest math self-concept are the ones who believe they can succeed in STEM fields and gravitate towards them. What’s concerning is that belief in your own math ability, math self-concept, came from there being a discrepancy in ability between math and verbal skills; you only see your strengths when pitted against your weaknesses. So how many of the people with similarly high math skills in the high-high group chose not to pursue a STEM career, simply because they didn’t believe they would succeed?

These findings, rooted in developmental psychology and education research, highlight a very important message we should send to our young people.  In this study, students with high math and high verbal scores did not end up pursuing STEM careers. This could be because they had more career options, but alternatively, this could have been because they lacked the belief that they could succeed in STEM fields. Would more of this largely female group of high math and verbal ability students have ended up in STEM fields if they had a higher math self-concept? We will never know due to the non-experimental design of the study, but of all the areas for potential intervention, helping young girls believe in their potential to succeed in math and science careers seems like the best place to start.  

Wang, M. T., Eccles, J. S., & Kenny, S. (2013). Not Lack of Ability but More Choice Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Psychological science24(5), 770-775. 

* = In order to appeal to young women, the European Commission developed an advertising campaign that would encourage women to pursue careers in science. The controversy relates this music video which the public saw as objectifying and misrepresenting the scientific profession. No matter the purpose, I still think it’s entertaining. Here it is for you to decide, enjoy! 


  1. As usual, I enjoyed your article, Kate. I think one of the reasons I had such a hard time in science and avoided it as much as possible, is that I had very little science education in grade school and junior high. I always did well in math but didn't find it interesting. I always knew I would be in a profession that dealt with helping others and communicating with others. Good article and we definitely should be encouraging more women to pursue math/science.

  2. Good post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon on a
    daily basis. It will always be interesting to read through content from other
    authors and use something from other websites. Thanks for the nice blog. It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such ideas in the future as well.Why don't girls choose science?


Get the next post via email:

Believe in our mission too?