A New View of Why Women Shun Science Careers

New research suggests one reason women are underrepresented in science and math is they see such careers as impeding their desire to help others.
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New research suggests one reason women are underrepresented in science and math is they see such careers as impeding their desire to help others.

It’s a nagging question that has long haunted the equality-minded world of academia: Why are women so underrepresented in the fields of science and technology? Do they simply have less innate ability in these areas, as former Harvard president (and current presidential adviser) Lawrence Summers famously argued? Or are they held back by ingrained sexism?

A team of Miami University researchers led by psychologist Amanda Diekman has come up with a different explanation. In a paper just published in the journal Psychological Science, they argue women perceive STEM careers (those in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as largely incompatible with one of their core goals: Engaging in work that helps others.

“STEM careers may elicit thoughts of the ‘lone scientist,’” the researchers write, conjuring up chilly images of a solitary man staring at his computer. Diekman and her colleagues argue such stereotypes, which imply isolation and a lack of human contact, may discourage some girls from pursuing scientific careers.

To test this notion, Diekman and her team surveyed 333 introductory psychology students (193 women and 140 men). The undergrads were asked about their career interests, their abilities in different academic areas, and the importance they place on certain personal objectives. Those objectives were divided into “agentic goals” (such as power, recognition, mastery, success) and “communal goals” (helping others, serving humanity, intimacy, spirituality).

The researchers found the more strongly a participant endorsed communal goals, the less likely he or she was to express interest in a STEM career. Not surprisingly, women were more likely than men to endorse these care-oriented objectives.

“If women perceive STEM as antithetical to highly valued goals,” they write, “it is not surprising that even women talented in these areas might choose alternative career paths.”

There’s a certain irony at work here; as the researchers point out, advances made by scientists “hold the key to helping many people.” Nevertheless, such careers “are commonly regarded as antithetical (or at best irrelevant) to such communal goals,” they report.

Diekman and her colleagues note the science-related fields with the greatest representation of women “are those that are most obviously involved in helping people, such as psychological science and the biomedical sciences.”

They suggest that when introducing girls to science and math, instructors and guidance counselors should point out that — contrary to the images they may carry in their heads — much of the work in these fields involves “helping, and collaborating with, other people.” That "lone scientist" is, in reality, part of a committed community.