A new study finds that when women are primed to think about their love lives, they become less interested in STEM coursework. Why?
Researchers at the University of Buffalo have published a study finding that when women are "pursuing romantic goals" they tend to shy away from academic work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In two experiments, subjects were exposed to images and conversations that primed them to think about dating, and then completed questionnaires regarding their interest in pursuing STEM versus other majors. Women who thought about dating and not intelligence or friendship reported less interest in STEM fields. A third component of the study asked women to keep track of their feelings of romance and their interest in math, and found that the two were at odds.
Perhaps this is less about women trying to be desirable, and more about the men they think they will meet.
Though the study's sample was pretty small (350), its conclusion doesn't seem off base. In fact, it's right in line with all your worst fears about how stereotypes about gender hold women back. Women, the reasoning goes, believe that men don't find brainy scientists attractive, and choose academic pursuits they believe will be less off-putting. As the study's authors explain, "When the goal to be romantically desirable is activated, even by subtle situational cues, women report less interest in math and science. One reason why this might be is that pursuing intelligence goals in masculine fields, such as STEM, conflicts with pursuing romantic goals associated with traditional romantic scripts and gender norms."
This is a plausible explanation. If it's true that men don't find women scientists attractive, these women are making a calculated and even perhaps rational decision to prioritize finding a mate over having a scientific career.
But is that really what's going on here? Researchers assumed that "wanting to be romantically desirable is theorized to interfere with wanting to be intelligent in the masculine domains of STEM," but perhaps this is less about women trying to be more desirable, and more about the men they think they will meet.
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.The poetry-spouting male English majors (all five of them), on the other hand, are hard to pass up. To put it simply: When thinking about dating, women think about more than just making themselves more attractive.
The study did not look at participants' sexual orientation, and it would be interesting to know whether the effect is different for gay and straight women. Such information might help to tease out the underlying causes behind the general trend.
Whatever is the actual vector for the effect of romantic pursuits tamping down women's academic ambitions in STEM fields, this study can be added to the pile of studies trying to explain the persistent gender gap. And that's the most important thing: The reasons for the gap are numerous, interconnected, and subtle, and any one explanation can only go so far.