Why do girls steer clear of STEM? Study offers a reason as Normandale hosts camp for ‘tween girls

As Normandale Community College in Bloomington prepares to host a July 26-29 Technology Engineers Camp for Her (TECH) aimed at sixth- and seventh-grade girls, a new study may help explain why some girls steer clear of STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

A Miami University team of researchers found that girls may avoid STEM careers because they are “perceived as less likely than careers in other fields to fulfill communal goals (e.g., working with or helping other people),” according to the abstract in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Such perceptions might disproportionately affect women’s career decisions, because women tend to endorse communal goals more than men,” according to the team, led by psychologist Amanda Diekman. “We found that STEM careers, relative to other careers, were perceived to impede communal goals.”

According to a story in Miller-McCune, the team took surveys of 333 introductory psych students, 193 of whom were women. “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 “more strongly” a participant approved of communal goals, the less likely the participant was interested in a STEM career, the team found, which may help explain why women are represented in greater numbers in the biomedical and psychological sciences. 

While looking into the gender wage gap recently, I interviewed Catherine Hill, the national director of research for the American Association of University Women. Biology is the No. 1 science major for women, Hill said. Otherwise, just 5 percent of women want to major in STEM fields, AAUW found.

One of the reasons behind the wage gap is that women tend to work in less-lucrative fields than STEM, researchers have found. Even within the sciences, however, biological science majors make less just out of college than other STEM majors, Hill said. For example, the median salary of female computer information science majors was $83,000 in 2008 compared with $51,000 for biological science majors.

A press release for Normandale’s TECH event reminds us that women represent less than 20 percent of engineering majors and careers. “Our aim is to educate female students about career opportunities in engineering and technology,” according to Nancy Louwagie, program coordinator and Normandale faculty member. “We provide fun, hands-on activities that fuel an interest in pursuing studies in STEM in secondary and post-secondary education — and ultimately a STEM career.” For registration and other information about TECH, contact Nancy Louwagie at nancy.louwagie@normandale.edu.

On a related note: A She’s Geeky “unConference” for women in STEM careers and their daughters also is planned Aug. 6-7 at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Details.

Despite all the efforts to draw more girls into STEM, another study suggests the problem isn’t that the nation isn’t producing enough scientists (female and male), it’s that the nation isn’t producing enough jobs for scientists. Check out Miller-McCune’s story headlined “The Real Science Gap.” 

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/21/2010 - 11:17 am.

    Very complicated issue.

    Perhaps Harry Belafonte was right in his song: The woman is smarter than the man?

    Let’s see, there are issues of student debt, biology, more concern about doing something worthwhile for the community…

    And finally – very important – the issue of jobs. Why should anyone kill themselves to get a good STEM education, when they could make a lot more money in business: see Carlson School of Management? When we quit treating people with STEM traning like Kleenex – see 45 yr old unemployed engineer – maybe more people will go in to STEM field.

    On a related note, why should good young people go into teaching of any kind – given the lousy job market?

    There is an elephant in the room that a lot of the STEM pushers seem to be ignoring. Of course they do this while taking money from the government and foundations to encourage STEM? We’ve gone round and round on this since the seventies…

    Bill Gleason, U of M faculty and alum

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