PITTSBURGH--Women may be less likely to pursue careers in science--not because they have less ability--but because they have more career choices, according to a University of Pittsburgh study published today in Psychological Science.
Although the gender gap in mathematics has narrowed in recent decades between males and females, women are still less likely to pursue STEM careers than their male counterparts. Together with colleagues at the University of Michigan, the Pitt research team investigated whether differences in overall patterns of math and verbal ability might play a role.
"Our study suggests that it's not lack of ability or differences in ability that orients females to pursue non-STEM careers but, because they're good at both, they can consider a wide range of occupations," said Ming-Te Wang, principal investigator of the study and assistant professor of psychology in education within Pitt's School of Education.
Wang and his colleagues examined data from 1,490 college-bound U.S. students drawn from a national longitudinal study. The students were surveyed in 12th grade and again when they were 33 years old. The survey highlighted data on several factors including participants' SAT scores, their motivational beliefs and values, and their occupations at age 33.
"We found that students who also had high verbal abilities--a group that contained more women than men--were less likely to have chosen a STEM occupation than those who had moderate verbal abilities," said Wang. "This shows that there's a greater likelihood that females with high math ability also have high verbal ability, giving them more career options."
Notably, those participants who reported feeling more able and successful at math were more likely to end up in STEM-related jobs, and this was particularly true for students who had high math and moderate verbal abilities. Therefore, mathematics may play a more integral role in these individuals' sense of identity, drawing them toward STEM occupations.
According to Wang, this study identifies a critical link in the debate about the dearth of women in STEM fields. These findings suggest that "educators and policy makers may consider shifting the focus from trying to strengthen girls' STEM-related abilities to trying to tap the potential of these girls who are equally skilled in both mathematics and verbal domains."
Wang's coauthors include the University of Michigan's Jacquelynne Eccles and Sarah Kenny. The paper, "Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," was published online March 19 in Psychological Science.