What do math-smart women want?

Women with strong math skills are less likely than men to choose science and technology careers. Many prefer other options, writes Elaine McArdle in the Boston Globe, citing two new studies.

While women are almost half the workforce, they make up 20 percent of engineers, fewer than one-third of chemists, and only about a quarter of computer and math professionals, she writes. Women with the ability to go into technology and the “hard sciences” often choose medicine, biosciences and other fields instead.

Joshua Rosenbloom, an economist at the University of Kansas, found work-family pressures and math ability didn’t explain the low number of women in information technology jobs. Preferences did: People were likely to choose IT if they “enjoyed the explicit manipulation of tools or machines,” less likely if they “enjoyed working with others.” Men dominated in the first group, women in the second.

Socialization? Maybe, says Rosenbloom. But women are making choices.

For more than 30 years, Vanderbilt’s Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth has followed nearly 2,000 mathematically gifted adolescents, McArdle writes. Men and women were equally successful academically but chose different careers.

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.

. . . men, relative to women, prefer to work with inorganic materials; women, in general, prefer to work with organic or living things.

The mathematically gifted women were more likely than the man to have strong verbal skills, the study found.

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.

Other research has found that countries that give women the greatest choices in careers show the “greatest gender split in careers.”

Japan is running out of engineers, as young people reject technical occupations for finance, medicine and the arts, reports the New York Times.

Update: Rand Simberg has more.

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  1. It’s not clear exactly how they are defining an “information technology career.” If an individual has a job selling enterprise software, or networking equipment, is he/she counted as pursuing an “I/T career?” What if he/she has a technical sales support job, which involves working closely with salespeople and customers in pursuit of new business?

    These jobs are often attractive (and profitable) to people who combine people skills and technical ability.

  2. Many years ago back in the Dark Ages of the early sixties, my high school guidance teacher suggested that I become an engineer, based on my math ability. At the time I thought it the most ludicrous idea I’d ever heard. I did actually go on to major in math in college with plans to become a computer programmer, but along the way I got lured into an English major as well. Working with computers in the sixties and seventies I found boring. Getting a Masters in English wasn’t. Today I’m an overworked and underpaid high school English teacher and I love it. My secret satisfaction is being able to say to those students who claim to be “math” people (and therefore bad at English) that I’m one too.

  3. “Women with strong math skills are less likely than men to choose science and technology careers.”

    That’s because they’re smarter than we are.

  4. For years, a major selling point on my resume was that I was a computer geek with people skills. I was NOT a math-whiz in high school – I would score way high on verbals, and barely average on the math portion of tests. It took me until my late 30s to get past my math phobias, and I can now convert binary to decimal with the best of them (well, I used to be able to – it’s been years since I’ve needed to).

    I chose the computer industry as a post-military career, but not as a programmer/technology whiz – as an instructor. It gives me the best of both worlds – the geekiness that I love, but the people contact that I can’t live without. And none of the hassles that accompany the education industry.

    I used to go to vendor technical training held in hotels, and I’d know I was in the right room when I saw a bunch of scruffy guys in shorts/t-shirts. I was typically the only female in the room. That’s a good 15 years ago – don’t know what it’s like now. I deal more with end-user training than the high-tech stuff, these days.

  5. Oh, I forgot to say — I still don’t consider myself a math-smart woman, but my friends are amazed that I can figure percentages in my head (very handy when shopping), and that I know that 1/2 is larger than 1/4, but that 1/3 is also larger than 1/4. I thought everyone knew that. But please don’t ask me to multiply fractions, or compute square roots/logarithms, etc. Never could retain the former, never got a handle on the latter.

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Title IX for the sciences?

  7. One has to distinguish between routine work in technical fields, and the top of academia.

    The studies say little about performance differences at the upper tail of the distribution which is especially relevant for becoming an academic in math or physics. The SAT does a poor job of distinguishing math talent for those who can score consistently around 760-800. And it is this tail which is relevant for the top ranks of academia. Consider that in the William Lowell Putnam Math contest, only a couple of women have ever been fellows. [Even the Elizabeth Putnam Fellowship — which is only awarded to women, and not necessarily top scorers — has only been awarded to 7 women]. One doesn’t have to be a math major to take the test and freshmen at the elites usually have enough math to handle it. But you have to be extraordinarily gifted to do well on it. Similarly only a few women are able to do well in Harvard’s Math 55 or the most hardcore courses at Caltech, Chicago, MIT or Princeton.

    So I suspect that Rosenbloom’s work is very relevant for standard engineering and computer science. It does not add much to the “Larry Summers problem” in high-end academia.

  8. So I suspect that Rosenbloom’s work is very relevant for standard engineering and computer science.

    Yep. We are awash in scientific literature showing a cognitive gender gap in mathmatics. This mathematical gap increases gradually with age until puberty, when the gap explodes. And there are two features to this gap:

    1) a higher male mean (smarter on average, men have more spatial ability, probably evolutionary from hunting)
    2) a greater male variance (there are more dumb and smart men, nature can afford to take risks with men and not women)

    While many studies are flawed due to sample size or whatnot, a good example here is the Project Talent study in 1960: 73,000 15 year-olds, both students and nonstudents given an all-day battery of 23 cognitive tests. Results: a mathmatical mean (male-female) difference of 0.12 standard deviation and a 1.20 (male/female) variance.

    People forget that even a slight IQ gap in the middle of the bell curve translates to massive differences at the tails. By the time you get to the top slice of mathmatical nerdville (or even nerdville in any subject due to the variance issue) statistically we should expect few women. And this is what we see. This is the “Larry Summers problem” of high-end academia.

  9. Other research has found that countries that give women the greatest choices in careers show the “greatest gender split in careers.”

    Next thing we know we’ll be told how much better it is for the government to tell us what work to do because then there will be more women engineers.

    As a woman engineer, I regret the choice! I loved getting my hands dirty on the machines, but once kids came along, I couldn’t support the 45+ hours needed plus the on-call type atmosphere when the manufacturing equipment malfunctioned on the weekend. Now I homeschool and do my own math curriculum because I don’t like anyone elses.

  10. In college, I saw quite a few women who had been pushed into engineering majors by parents or guidance councilors change majors after the first year. The people had good intentions in pushing the women into engineering. They thought they were helping them into stable, relatively good-paying jobs.

    When the women wasted a year finding out that they hated engineering just as much as they expected, it turned out that the parents and guidance councilors weren’t doing them a favor at all.

    I don’t know why everyone gets to excited over the fact that there are gender differences in cognition. Wouldn’t you EXPECT it, given all the other gender differences that exist?

  11. Also, most good engineers I know were that way practically from birth. They spent their childhoods taking things apart to see how they worked and building things with tinker toys, lego blocks and so on. While everyone knows exceptions, these aren’t generally behaviors you expect from girls, for whatever reason.

  12. Another factor–women are in general even more conformist than men, and they are particularly concerned about the approval of their female friends. Few girls grow up in circles where math, science, engineering, etc would be viewed enthusiastically.

    Women also tend to be very influenced by images in the media, and there are not many favorable portrayals of scientists & engineers at all, let alone female scientists & engineers.