Romance Hinders Women in STEM Courses?

Another day, another bunch of dollars thrown at studies lamenting “the gender gap in science and technology fields.” The most recent comes from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation.

From its Executive Summary:

Our science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce is crucial to America’s innovative capacity and global competitiveness. Yet women are vastly underrepresented in STEM jobs and among STEM degree holders despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce and half of the college-educated workforce. That leaves an untapped opportunity to expand STEM employment in the United States, even as there is wide agreement that the nation must do more to improve its competitiveness.

• Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. This has been the case throughout the past decade, even as college-educated women have increased their share of the overall workforce.

• Women with STEM jobs earned 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs–-considerably higher than the STEM premium for men. As a result, the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM jobs than in non-STEM jobs.

• Women hold a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering.

• Women with a STEM degree are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation; they are more likely to work in education or healthcare.

There are essentially three points here:

STEM photo.jpeg1. Women are "underrepresented" in STEM fields.

2. We need more women in STEM fields (in part because we need more people in STEM fields) to enhance "America’s innovative capacity and global competitiveness."

3. More women ought to choose STEM fields because it's good for them — they make more money there.

So, how do the Commerce Dept. authors explain what they call "the discrepancy of women and men in STEM jobs"? They're not sure, but their bottom line is that it doesn't really matter. "There are many possible factors," they write,

including: a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping, and less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields. Regardless of the causes, the findings of this report provide evidence of a need to encourage and support women in STEM.

Actually, it does no such thing. The only evidence it provides is of "underrepresentation" of women, not of need to do anything to persuade more of them to choose STEM fields in or after college. In fact, as I argued here and here, the argument that women need to be induced to make choices they're not now making implies both that they don't know what's good for themselves and that more Asian or Jewish or whatever male scientists wouldn’t help our “global competitiveness” as much as the induced women would. "Where is the evidence," I asked (second link above),

that the enormous costs involved in trying to find, create, cajole, hire, promote, etc., more women and black and Hispanic scientists will produce more top flight scientists than would recruiting even more decidedly not "underrepresented" Asians and Jews?….If we need more scientists, we need them of whatever hue or sex.

Now comes Jane McAuliffe, president of Bryn Mawr College, commenting on the Commerce report. After duly noting and lamenting the "underrepresentation," she adds:

Some may say, "Well, so what? There are some jobs men like, and some jobs women like…."

She’s right; some not only may but do. McAuliffe continues:

As to the "so what," the answer can be found in the report's title. As long as there is a gender gap in these fields, there will be an innovation gap. And in today's global economy, the countries that lead do so through fostering technological innovation. Creating an environment where women can reach their full potential in the STEM fields is possible and can have impressive results.

The problem here, as I've noted, is that the mantra that more women = more innovation (or at least more than would result from more Asian or Jewish or [you pick the group] men) is simply an article of faith, a nice-sounding talking point.

President McAuliffe is more interesting when she notes and tries to explain the remarkable and ample produce of her own garden:

Bryn Mawr College is in the top 10 among all colleges and universities in terms of the percentage of female graduates pursuing doctorates in the STEM fields. Our students are six times more likely to graduate with a degree in chemistry than college students nationwide and nine times more likely to do so in math. In fact, Bryn Mawr is second in the nation in the percentage of female students receiving degrees in math, beating out such science-oriented universities as the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has 18 times the national average of female students graduating in physics.

STEM photo 2.jpgSince my daughter, Jessie, is one of those Bryn Mawr physics graduates (2004, when she was 17; PhD from Caltech in 2010), I yield to no one in my admiration for Bryn Mawr. But since McAuliffe's explanation of why Bryn Mawr is so successful in producing women in STEM is … that it has more women in STEM, I'm not sure Bryn Mawr has as much to teach others as she thinks.

"How do we do it?" she asks. Her answer:

When we ask our STEM majors what it is about Bryn Mawr that encourages them to pursue these male-dominated fields we consistently hear two things – being exposed to role models among our faculty, alumnae, and their fellow students, and the positive effect of being in a classroom in which they aren't the lone woman.

President McAuliffe’s explanation of Bryn Mawr’s success sounds remarkably similar to the answer Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, gave to a House committee two years ago when asked about the underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields, except Biology. There are more women in Biology, Leshner explained, because there are more women in Biology.

[Leshner] said that role models may already be a proven method of eradicating the gender gap. In biological sciences, one reason that the majority of degrees are now granted to women is because the number of female role models in that field far outnumbers the other STEM fields, leading to what he termed a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Interestingly, Bryn Mawr and Biology do have one feature in common that recent research suggests may be important in producing more female STEM workers: an underrepresentation of men. As Inside Higher Ed reported last week in “Romance vs. STEM,” the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin is about to publish a series of research projects led by SUNY Buffalo assistant professor of psychology Lora Park arguing that

when college-age women think about romance, they become less interested in studying STEM fields. College-age men, however, can get interested in romance without any impact on their engagement with math and science.

Word of these studies quickly spread out of the academic hothouse. The Atlantic published an article by associate editor Rebecca Rosen, “Another Reason More Women Don’t Work in Technology: Dating,” noting that “that when women are ‘pursuing romantic goals’ they tend to shy away from academic work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).” Rosen isn’t persuaded.

Start with the odds: Why would any woman who wanted to maximize her dating opportunities avoid science, math, and technology? Her odds are obviously better in the fields where she is underrepresented.
But women don't merely want to maximize their opportunities, they also want to increase the quality of their opportunities. Maybe it is not that women are trying to make themselves more desirable, but that they aren't that into the men they meet in their STEM classes.

As Caltech women are fond of pointing out about their dating prospects in a sea of STEM men, the odds are good but the goods are odd.

Time also asked, “Study: Are Women Choosing Romance Over Math and Science?” and Forbes asked, “Is This Scientific Proof That Women Play Dumb?,” linking the romance studies with “the Department of Commerce’s report showing that only 25% of STEM jobs are held by women and that women with STEM degrees are much more likely to work outside their fields than are men.”

Professor Park’s next study, Inside Higher Education reported, will attempt to determine whether the assumptions of many women “that men find female STEM success unattractive” is true. Presumably she will need to evaluate studies supporting the familiar theory that men want to marry women who are not as smart as they are, such as this one quoted by Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution several years ago:

four British universities measured the IQ of 900 11-year-olds and revisited them 40 years later to see how their lives had moved on.

They found that the brighter girls were less likely to find a man who wants to marry them, with their chances diminishing dramatically in direct proportion to their level of intelligence.

For each 16-point rise in their IQ, their marriage prospects fell by 40 per cent.

In contrast, boys’ chances increased by 35 per cent with each 16-point rise.

STEM photo 3.jpgIf the old saw about men not making passes at girls who wear glasses now also means they are less likely to make passes at girls in STEM classes, then propping up a larger number of female “role models” is likely to have a limited effect. (Or worse: if the new role models are not only successful STEMers but also attractive and sexy, they may attract even more men to their classes.) Whether or not it is true that girls more than boys are lured away from STEM classes by romance, the success of Bryn Mawr and other women’s colleges in producing women scientists does suggest women do better without men around to distract them. I asked my daughter, Jessie, the Bryn Mawr/Caltech physicist, what she thought of all this, and her reply bears quoting:

I tend to give more credence to the "mining the untapped potential" arguments than you do — if a little bit of recruiting effort can induce women to go into science who were initially interested but were turned off by the environment, then I consider that a net plus (for both the women, and for science). But not to the point of misleading women about what working in the sciences is like: it's difficult work, takes long hours, and is often cutthroat. I don't see a problem with undergraduate environments mimicking that at least a little bit, even if it does turn away the softhearted — male or female.

As for the romantic prospects of high IQ women, I am not familiar with the studies such as the one quoted above from Marginal Revolution, but from personal experience I am fully qualified to observe that my highly intelligent wife was successful, if you count her marrying someone less smart than she a success. And I certainly hope there are at least some attractive men willing to marry a girl smarter than they are, or Jessie will be destined to remain single.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

8 thoughts on “Romance Hinders Women in STEM Courses?

  1. “when college-age women think about romance, they become less interested in studying STEM fields. College-age men, however, can get interested in romance without any impact on their engagement with math and science.”
    But it doesn’t work in reverse. Everyone knows that while STEM guys can get interested in romance without any impact on their math and science, their math and science will negatively impact their prospects for getting laid. Hence all the lonely and frustrated STEM guys.
    On the otherhand being that the STEM classes are full of men, you’d think women interested in romance would be signing up for them en masse.
    But again, STEM guys are not considereded “hot”.

  2. John,
    As far as men reluctant to marry women smarter than they are: I have talked this over on occasion with Jewish friends and we concluded that Jewish men are more likely than non-Jews to find a wife smarter than they are acceptable. So your daughter will probably have better prospects with Jewish men than with gentiles. At least this is true among whites. I am not sure how Indian or East Asian men think about these things but I suspect they act more like the white gentiles in their mate selection (desirable wives to have lower IQs than their mates)than like Jewish men.
    Russ Nieli

  3. Can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I was a physics major in college, and I have married two women. Both wore glasses. I did not meet them in college.
    An anecdote: I was told be an acquaintance that a friend of his married a woman less intelligent than himself because he considered he a good mate, this after being divorced by his intelligent first wife.

  4. Clearly we need more women in STEM fields to do more studies like these to tell us why we need more women in STEM fields.

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