U-M study helps define why fewer women choose math-based careers
ARBOR, Mich.Girls and boys who are confident in their math
abilities tend to pick a science career based on their values more
than on their skills, a study by two University of Michigan researchers
The study found that both boys and girls who were
people-oriented tended to choose college majors in the biological
sciencesmedicine, environmental sciences or social sciencesrather
than the mathematically based sciences such as engineering, physics,
or astronomy. It also found that math self-confidence, while stronger
in boys than girls, played a much smaller role in the choice of
college majors and careers than previously thought.
The study, by Jacquelynne Eccles, a professor
of psychology and women's studies and a research scientist
in the University's Institute for Research on Women and Gender
(IRWG), and Mina Vida, a research associate in IRWG, is based on
a data set collected over 17 years as part of the Michigan Study
of Adolescent Life Transitions (MSALT). MSALT follows some 1,700
southeastern Michigan students from 6th grade through college and
beyond, looking at a wide variety of interests, motivation and achievement-related
"Girls do tend to underestimate their math
ability in high school, even though their actual performance is
just as good as that of the boys. But that's not what pushes
them away from mathematically based majors," Eccles said.
"There are two key factors in that decision: how much they
believe in the ultimate utility of mathematics, and how much they
value working with and for people."
Boys in the survey tended to rank the utility
of mathematics more highly, while girls placed a higher value on
English. In addition, girls were more likely to be people-oriented.
"Given this data, it's not surprising that there are
many more men than women in math-based majors and careers,"
Eccles said. "Boys' beliefs and values are pulling them
toward those areas while girls' are pushing them in other
Eccles points out that women are going into science,
but they tend to concentrate in the life and social sciences. For
instance, in 1997, 63 percent of psychologists and 42 percent of
biologists were women, compared with 10 percent of physicists and
astronomers and 9 percent of engineers. In 2002, women made up 43
percent of the incoming U-M Medical School class, but were just
14 percent of doctoral students in the College of Engineering.
Eccles and Vida's research suggests that
those who want to attract and retain more women in math-based academic
programs and careers in industry need to develop different intervention
programs for girls and young women. "It's not enough
to simply try to raise girls' confidence levels," Eccles
said. "We need to develop interventions that will not only
demonstrate the utility of mathematics, but also show how the mathematically
based sciences do something concrete to help people."
She says U-M's GO-GIRL program for seventh-grade
girls is a good example. Students in GO-GIRL design questionnaires
on topics of their own choosing and conduct surveys via the school's
Smartgirl.org website. They learn how to analyze and present the
data they collect. "By demonstrating a strong connection between
math and the things that concern them in their daily lives, GO-GIRL
increases the chances that these girls will continue their interest
in math and the mathematical sciences," Eccles said.
By contrast, attempts that focus simply on improving
girls' self concept when it comes to math are likely to have
a lesser impact, because they do not address the real factors that
push girls away from math.
The study also has implications for universities
and industry. "Both undergraduate and graduate programs in
engineering and the mathematical sciences will need to take a hard
look at their curriculums if they want to increase the number of
women," Eccles said. "It's not enough to concentrate
solely on abstract mathematics. Women (and more people-oriented
men) need to be able to make the link to wider societal values.
"For example, a professor teaching students
how to design a bridge can make it a purely mathematical exercise,
or use mathematics as a tool to create a bridge that will meet the
needs of a given community. Most civil engineering programs will
stress the mathematics but not the wider picture," she explained.
for Research on Women and Gender >
Study of Adolescent Life Transitions >
Contact: Judy Steeh
Phone: (734) 647-3099