Are Women Just Not Interested?April 29, 2011
Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.
From early adolescence, fewer girls than boys express interest in pursuing science or engineering. In a 2009 poll of young people ages 8–17, 24 percent of boys but only 5 percent of girls said they were interested in an engineering career.
Even girls and women who excel in mathematics often do not pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In studies of high achievers in mathematics, for example, women are more likely to pursue degrees in the humanities, life sciences, and social sciences than in math, computer science, engineering, or the physical sciences. The reverse is true for men. Interest in an occupation is influenced by many factors, including a belief in one’s ability to succeed in that occupation, culturally prescribed gender roles, and values.
Gender differences in confidence in STEM subjects begin in middle school, when girls report less self-confidence than boys do in their math and science ability. Likewise, children — and girls especially — develop beliefs that they cannot pursue particular occupations because they perceive them as inappropriate for their gender. And well-documented gender differences exist in the value that women and men place on doing work that contributes to society, with women more likely than men to prefer work with a clear social purpose. Since most people do not view STEM occupations as directly benefiting society or individuals, STEM careers often do not appeal to women (or men) who place a high value on making a social contribution.
Certain STEM disciplines with a clearer social purpose, such as biology, biomedical engineering, and environmental engineering, have succeeded in attracting higher percentages of women than other fields like physics or mechanical engineering. And projects emphasizing the socially beneficial aspects of engineering like www.engineeryourlife.org have been shown to increase high school girls’ interest in pursuing engineering as a career.
What do you think affects girls’ and women’s interest in STEM fields?