Concerns about the lack of women undertaking careers in science and engineering are based on one simple false premise: that science and engineering are the most prestigious choices available to women with great ability in maths and science at high school.
If relatively more prestigious career options are open to women who also happen to qualify for science and engineering, women will be underrepresented in science and engineering simply because they have better career options than the men who become scientists and engineers.
In New Zealand, just as many women as men qualify for science and engineering and the IT degrees. Not as many women who have qualified take up this option simply because they also qualify for medicine and law in greater numbers than the men who happen to qualify for science, engineering and IT degrees.
In the United States, the Association for Psychological Science found that:
Women may be less likely to pursue careers in science and math because they have more career choices, not because they have less ability, according to a new study published in Psychological Science.
Although the gender gap in mathematics has narrowed in recent decades, with more females enrolling and performing well in math classes, females are still less likely to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) than their male peers.
Researchers tend to agree that differences in math ability can’t account for the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. So what does?
Developmental psychologist Ming-Te Wang and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan wondered whether differences in overall patterns of math and verbal ability might play a role.
The researchers examined data from 1490 college-bound US students drawn from a national longitudinal study. The students were surveyed in 12th grade and again when they were 33 years old. The survey included data on several factors, including participants’ SAT scores, various aspects of their motivational beliefs and values, and their occupations at age 33.
Looking at students who showed high math abilities, Wang and colleagues found that those 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.
This outcome is no surprise for those familiar with the gap between men and women in verbal and reading abilities – a gap that is strongly in favour of women
The OECD PISA tests at the age of 15 find that teenage boys have a slight advantage in maths – a few percentage points – teenage girls have a serious advantage in reading.
The OECD PISA tests at the age of 15 find that this superior verbal and reading abilities of teenage girls the equivalent of six months extra schooling. One half year’s education goes a long way towards explaining many wage gaps by gender,ethnicity in race. This six-month edge in schooling is a serious advantage when qualifying for university.
Young women choose to not pursue science, engineering and IT careers because there are other career options that allow them to use their superior verbal and reading abilities – other careers is that allow them to be more successful in life than being a scientist, an engineer or an IT geek. As the Association for Psychological Science explains in the same press release cited above:
Our study shows that it’s not lack of ability or differences in ability that orients females to pursue non-STEM careers, it’s the greater likelihood that females with high math ability also have high verbal ability,” notes Wang. “Because they’re good at both, they can consider a wide range of occupations.
To put it bluntly, science, engineering and IT degrees are for young people who lack the verbal and reading abilities to get into medicine and law. Science, engineering and IT good degrees are for those who can’t get into medicine and law. They could have been contenders if they were more articulate and well-read.
There is a gender disparity in science, engineering and IT because teenage girls find these degrees to be inferior choices – inferior choices given the set of abilities they have when considering their career options.
HT: Mark J. Perry