Why Are Women More Likely to Choose Non-Science Fields?

by John Conroy

Ming-Te Wang, who joined the School of Education faculty last fall as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in Education, was featured in both TIME magazine and the journal Science about his recent research study related to women possibly being underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields due to “finding better opportunities elsewhere.”

Wang’s study was published in the journal Psychological Science under the title, “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," which he wrote with Jacquelynne S. Eccles and Sarah Kenny. In the study, he argues that the pattern of gender differences in math and verbal ability may result in females having a wider choice of careers in both STEM and non-STEM fields, compared with males.

The study involved 1,490 subjects participating in two waves of a national longitudinal study: one when they were in 12th grade, and the other when they were 33 years old. One notable finding was that among those who had the highest scores on both the verbal and the math sections of the SAT, for example, nearly two-thirds were female, while only 37 percent were male, showing that the group with both high math and high verbal ability featured more females than males. This pattern of ability differences may allow females more career choice than males and, thus, makes them potentially less likely to choose careers in STEM fields.

Another element of Wang’s study suggests that students’ math- and verbal-ability patterns in 12th grade predict their occupations at age 33 more so than elements such as ability self-concepts, interests, occupational and lifestyle values, and family education and income. Wang claims that, “Career aspirations based on individual aptitudes, interests, and values are formulated during adolescence and shape the academic choices that lead to the STEM career.”

See Table 1 below for the percentage of each group that chose a STEM career.

However, a particular item of note that interests Wang is why, despite being strong in both language and math ability, are women still more likely choose non-STEM careers? That is why he and the researchers also questioned participants about how good they thought they were at math and English and how much they enjoyed them. This is under the theory that people often play to their strengths, choosing what comes easiest and gets the most support.

In the TIME article, author Maia Szalavitz takes it a step further, offering that “cultural stereotypes 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.”

In addition to TIME and Science, The Huffington Post, Smithsonian, USA Today, and local Pittsburgh papers also published articles about Wang's work. He will soon be featured in both the Atlantic Monthly and Economist.

Keep an eye out for Wang’s article in the upcoming School of Education magazine, where he argues the need for educational psychology among preservice teachers and how it could make them more effective motivators.