Fearing B’s, women reject STEM majors

Claudia Goldin/Harvard University – This chart shows the percentage of male and female students who received a given grade in introductory economics course who then later majored in economics. 

Women should stop trying to be straight-A students, choose tougher, math-centric majors and earn more later, writes Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post.

“The college majors that tend to lead to the most profitable professions are also the stingiest about awarding A’s,” she writes. Women may be leaving these fields because they’re afraid of getting B’s, two new studies suggest.

Most new college graduates are female, but only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics go to women. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor, analyzed how Econ 101 grades affected the chance a student would major in the subject.

She found that the likelihood a woman would major in economics dropped steadily as her grade fell: Women who received a B in Econ 101, for example, were about half as likely as women who received A’s to stick with the discipline. The same discouragement gradient didn’t exist for men. Of Econ 101 students, men who received A’s were about equally as likely as men who received B’s to concentrate in the dismal science.

Duke Professor Peter Arcidiacono is finding similar trends in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Women enter college just as prepared as men in math and science, but few choose a STEM major (not counting biology) and even fewer complete a degree.

Plenty has been written about whether hostility toward female students or a lack of female faculty members might be pushing women out of male-dominated majors such as computer science. Arcidiacono’s research, while preliminary, suggests that women might also value high grades more than men do and sort themselves into fields where grading curves are more lenient.

Women “want something where the professor will pat them on the back and say ‘You’re doing so well!’,” speculates Goldin. Men have their “eyes on the prize.”

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  1. Students are so worried about their frigging GPA’s that they don’t see the bigger picture. The only time I’ve actually been asked about my GPA (I’m in a STEM field, information technology, etc) was back in 2008 when I was being questioned for a security clearance. The investigator wondered if I could give him my GPA from back then, it wasn’t as good in the mid-80’s compared to the early 2000’s 🙂

    If women are afraid of getting B’s (in my day, a GPA of 3 or higher was pretty good), what will happen if they get on the job and have the boss upset with them? (geez).

  2. How is “just as prepared in math/science” defined? The SAT doesn’t discriminate all that well at the top level and even the AP calc BC doesn’t. I have kids with 800s/5s on those and they had classmates that they knew were more mathematically talented than they were – and mine are successful in STEM fields.

  3. The top levels of achievement in mathematics are totally dominanted by men. I would estimate that over 99% of the top mathematicians of the twentieth century were men.

  4. GEORGE LARSON says:

    Maybe it is because girls go to schools that encourage them to do well and continue to expect encouragement which they do not get. Boys go to the same schools and are discouraged by their teachers, learn to ignore it, persevere and pursue their goals. Is this an unexpected effect of our politically correct schools?

  5. What does the data look like after removing the people who went on to grad school or med school?

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Good quality graduate schools want high GPA’s. For most (not all) of the STEM fields to pay, you need post-BS credentials. A BS degree in a STEM field usually commands a higher average salary than business degrees, but there is greater dispersion in in salaries for business degree holders. For instance, partners in large CPA firms (BS or BA with CPA status)out-earn significantly what a BS engineer with the same number of years experience.

  7. Ann in L.A. says:

    This could easily have been me. I went into college determined to be a physics major, but I bombed the first major test. I knew I needed good grades the first year, because later years would be harder, and I wanted my overall GPA in my major to be good. I was so nervous about the final–I needed a really good grade to overcome the early bad one–that I couldn’t eat the day before. In the end I did really well on the final and all turned out okay–I stuck with physics and did end up with a decent gpa in my major.

    But, I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t pulled it out. I probably would have continued, but mostly because I don’t know what other major I would have wanted to pursue.

  8. It’s one thing to encourage someone, of either sex, to go into STEM areas if they have the talent and interest, but quite another to push anyone in that direction when they tend to gravitate elsewhere. Just because someone can do something well does not mean that they will necessarily be happy doing it – especially as a career. Two members of my family, both males, are/were very mathematically talented but left STEM fields, despite their competence in them, for careers in much more people-centered fields – and were very happy they had made the switch. I’m all for encouraging kids to choose majors that will lead to college-grad-level employment (my DH and I did), but they shouldn’t be pushed into fields in which they will be unhappy.

    • Being a STEM person married to a STEM person and working around em, I can say I wouldn’t encourage my daughters to pursue a career unless they showed both talent AND interest. Too easy to get pigeon-holed and then laid off. Can be hard to solve the two body problem, especially if spouse is in a like field. Nope, go for something portable – accounting, econ, OK – stats if you must.

      STEM majors, meh. I remember my analytical mechanics and statisical thermodynamics professors and their “one A a year policy”; ugh. I had to explain that away when I went for my first job interviews many moons ago.