Some new research indicates that more women than men have a combination of high math and high verbal skills on the SAT scores… but also that the women with both high math and high verbal ability tend to choose careers outside of science.
This is important, because it suggests that the problem of getting women to major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the so-called STEM fields) is not because women cannot handle these fields but are choosing not to. The researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan who did the study speculate that their combination of skills provides them with more career options.
The authors found that women with high math skills and only moderate verbal ability are the ones who appear more likely to choose STEM careers
Given the need to encourage more people to prepare for STEM careers, the authors urge more concentrated efforts to encourage women who already possess the necessary skills. The paper, published March 19 in Psychological Science, is titled “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”
The Pitt-Michigan team calculated that the mean SAT math score of a group of men and women with the combination of high math and high verbal scores was 720, while the mean SAT verbal score was 696. (On each, the highest possible score is 800.) Women were 63 percent of these students who were high achievers in both; men were 37 percent.
Additionally, the researchers found that women in the group of men and women with high math scores and only moderate verbal scores were the ones more likely to choose STEM careers. The mean math SAT score for this group was 721, while the mean verbal SAT score was 655.
Pitt Assistant Professor of Psychology in Education Ming-Te Wang and his collaborators examined data on college-bound U.S. students in the 12th grade (in 1992) and again at age 33 (2007). Only subjects who completed both surveys were included in Wang’s study.
Wang and coauthors Jacquelynne Eccles and Sarah Kenny, both of the University of Michigan, found that men and women who felt more successful in mathematics than in verbal-related disciplines were more likely to work in STEM fields. Mathematics, said Wang, played a role in these individuals’ identities because they excelled within the discipline, driving them to pursue STEM-related jobs.
The research has gotten a lot of publicity that highlights its important implications, although some of it is inaccurate. A blog on the website of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, misidentifies the authors and, more importantly says that they argue that women who are fully capable of doing STEM work have broader career options than those available to men because their verbal abilities are superior, on average. This puts the causality backward. And Time puts the story correctly, but with a misleading headline: “How Cultural Stereotypes Lure Women Away From Careers in Science“.
But there is good news—that is, solutions. Wang said: “This highlights the need for educators and policy makers to shift the focus away from trying to strengthen girls’ STEM-related abilities and instead tap the potential of these girls who are highly skilled in both the math and verbal domains to go into STEM fields.”