Why Are So Few Women Attracted to STEM Careers?

Diekman, A. B., Clark, E. K., Johnston, A. M., Brown, E. R., & Steinberg, M. (2011). Malleability in communal goals and beliefs influences attraction to STEM careers: Evidence for a goal congruity perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 902-918.

Women are entering such male-dominated fields as law, medicine, and business in record numbers. Yet the gender imbalance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers has been slow to change. Diekman and colleagues (2011) proposed that the answer lies in women’s communal goals and beliefs about how to achieve those goals. The authors cited social role theory, which attributes differences in gender roles to the division of labor – women’s gender roles center on communal behaviors (working with or helping others) since women have traditionally occupied positions that emphasize these traits, whereas men’s gender roles stress agentic traits (involving self-assertion) since men have traditionally occupied positions of leadership and power. Further, according to an extension of this approach, role congruity theory, individuals expect positive outcomes to result from choosing socially sanctioned gender roles. The authors suggested that women see STEM careers as impeding communal goals. In a series of studies with large numbers of psychology students, Diekman and colleagues found that (1) women were more likely than men to endorse communal goals, (2) STEM careers were perceived as unlikely to fulfill communal goals, (3) the word “science” was less closely associated with communal terms than was the word “medicine” on an implicit association task, (4) priming communal goals with a writing task decreased interest in STEM careers, but not other careers, and (5) exposure to a description of communal aspects of a scientist’s work increased interest in STEM careers. The authors suggested that facilitating and better communicating communal aspects of STEM careers may result in increased interest in this career path among both women and men who endorse communal goals.

Making Connections

Agency and communality
Implicit Association Test (IAT)
Social role theory
Role congruity theory

Media Supplement

According to this MSNBC article , “About as many girls as boys start off liking math and science at a young age. But stereotypes and biases turn girls off later. “

Host Michel Martin speaks with Shirley Jackson — president of Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute — in this NPR podcast, and the two discuss being a woman in the male-dominated field. Jackson is the first African-American woman to run a top research university. [13 min 37 sec]