The freedom to say ‘no’

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Why aren’t there more women in science and engineering? They just aren’t interested:

Now two new studies by economists and social scientists have reached a perhaps startling conclusion: An important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves. When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women — highly qualified for the work — stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else.

One study of information-technology workers found that women’s own preferences are the single most important factor in that field’s dramatic gender imbalance. Another study followed 5,000 mathematically gifted students and found that qualified women are significantly more likely to avoid physics and the other “hard” sciences in favor of work in medicine and biosciences.

I am shocked — shocked! — to hear this:

Rosenbloom and his colleagues used a standard personality-inventory test to measure people’s preferences for different kinds of work. In general, Rosenbloom’s study found, men and women who enjoyed the explicit manipulation of tools or machines were more likely to choose IT careers — and it was mostly men who scored high in this area. Meanwhile, people who enjoyed working with others were less likely to choose IT careers. Women, on average, were more likely to score high in this arena.

Personal preference, Rosenbloom and his group concluded, was the single largest determinative factor in whether women went into IT. They calculated that preference accounted for about two-thirds of the gender imbalance in the field. The study was published in November in the Journal of Economic Psychology.

More shocking discoveries:

Starting more than 30 years ago, the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth began following nearly 2,000 mathematically gifted adolescents, boys and girls, tracking their education and careers in ensuing decades. (It has since been expanded to 5,000 participants, many from more recent graduating classes.) Both men and women in the study achieved advanced credentials in about the same numbers. But when it came to their career paths, there was a striking divergence.

Math-precocious men were much more likely to go into engineering or physical sciences than women. Math-precocious women, by contrast, were more likely to go into careers in medicine, biological sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Both sexes scored high on the math SAT, and the data showed the women weren’t discouraged from certain career paths.

The survey data showed a notable disparity on one point: That men, relative to women, prefer to work with inorganic materials; women, in general, prefer to work with organic or living things. This gender disparity was apparent very early in life, and it continued to hold steady over the course of the participants’ careers.

This is legitimately intriguing:

Benbow and Lubinski also found something else intriguing: Women who are mathematically gifted are more likely than men to have strong verbal abilities as well; men who excel in math, by contrast, don’t do nearly as well in verbal skills. As a result, the career choices for math-precocious women are wider than for their male counterparts. They can become scientists, but can succeed just as well as lawyers or teachers. With this range of choice, their data show, highly qualified women may opt out of certain technical or scientific jobs simply because they can.

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