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Why women shy away from careers in science and math


Girls steer away from careers in math, science and engineering because they view science as a solitary rather than a social occupation, according to a University of Michigan psychologist.

"Raising girls who are confident in their ability to succeed in science and math is our first job," said Jacquelynne Eccles, a senior research professor at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and the U-M Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

"But in order to increase the number of women in science, we also need to make young women more interested in these fields, and that means making them aware that science is a social endeavor that involves working with and helping people."

Eccles gave an invited address on how parents and teachers influence children’s academic and career choices April 9, 2005, in Atlanta at the biennial conference of the Society for Research in Child Development.

For the talk, she drew upon data from decades of research, funded by a variety of agencies and foundations, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Development. One of the studies Eccles used for the analysis was the Michigan Study of Adolescent and Adult Life Transitions, a longitudinal study she started in 1983 that has followed approximately 1,200 predominately white, working-class young men and women from early adolescence into adulthood. The last interviews were conducted in 2002 when participants were 30 years old.

In 7th-grade, the occupational aspirations of girls had little to do with their abilities as indicated by their grades and the opinions of both their parents and their teachers, Eccles and colleagues found. The girls’ perception of the career potential of advanced or honors math and science classes in high school was a stronger predictor of their selection of such courses than was their actual ability in those subjects.

Eccles and colleagues have repeatedly found that parents provide many types of messages to daughters that undermine both their daughters’ confidence in their math and science abilities and their interest in pursuing careers in these fields.

Even though girls got better math grades than boys, parents of daughters reported that math was more difficult for their child than parents of sons. "Parents of daughters also said their girls had to work harder to do well in math than parents of sons, even though teachers told us this was not true," she said.

Girls said that they worked harder in math than in English, and parents reported that is true, too. But student time diaries told a different story, with boys and girls both reporting that they spent more time on language arts than on math.

"Parents also gave very different reasons for the math success of girls and boys," Eccles said. "Parents of boys rated talent and effort as equally important, while parents of girls said hard work was much more important than math talent."

Eccles urged teachers to tell parents that their daughters are talented in math and science, and to provide girls and their parents with vocational and intellectual reasons for studying math or science.

Eccles and colleagues also analyzed gender differences in college majors and occupations, finding that sex differences in general self-concepts and values at age 20 had a long-term influence on the college courses and jobs young men and women picked.

Young women were more likely than young men to place a high value on occupations that permitted flexibility and did not require them to be away from their family. The women also valued working with people. Even though young women had higher college GPAs than young men, young men were more likely to have a higher opinion of their abilities in math and science, and in their general intellectual abilities. They were also more likely to value jobs that required them to supervise other people.

"In addition to improving the confidence of girls, we need to show them that scientists work in teams, solving problems collaboratively. And that as a result of their work, scientists are in a unique position to help other people.

"We as a culture do a very bad job of telling our children what scientists do. Young people have an image of scientists as eccentric old men with wild hair, smoking cigars, deep in thought, alone. Basically, they think of Einstein. We need to change that image and give our children a much richer, nuanced view of who scientists are, what scientists do and how they work."

Diane Swanbrow | EurekAlert!
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