Why So Few Women? Explaining Gendered Occupational Outcomes in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Fields
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- Bystydzienski, J.M. Sex Roles (2009) 60: 751. doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9548-6
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Despite several decades of research, legislation, and interventions focused on gender equality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields (Clewell 2002), men still significantly outnumber women in STEM careers in most countries and cultures of the world. In the United States, Canada, Australia, most of the European Union, Japan, countries of Africa and Latin America, few women continue to enter occupations in these fields and even fewer are likely to persist in them (INWES 2007).
This edited volume addresses the question “why so few women?” by bringing together relevant research conducted by scholars from diverse disciplines including social and developmental psychology, cultural anthropology, biology, human development, education and sociology. The studies included rely mainly on large-scale longitudinal samples from Canada, the USA, Australia, Japan, Turkey and several European Union countries which allow the researchers to explore gendered STEM career outcomes in diverse cultural contexts, varying gender opportunity structures and levels of economic development. The book thus provides a more global perspective regarding influences on women’s career choices than previous studies of gendered occupational outcomes which have been largely concentrated in the USA and to some extent in a few other countries of the Western world (Jacobs 2005; Xie and Shauman 2003). The collection promises “to highlight distinctive contextual features that relate to culturally specific patterns and suggest circumstances that may be the most conducive to promoting and supporting women’s development in STEM careers” (p. 7).
The book consists of four parts. The first focuses on the role of mathematics as a critical filter that determines women’s access to high-status careers in science and technology occupations. The second part addresses individual factors influencing women’s career choices and persistence in STEM fields, including values, self-concepts, motivation, and competing interests. Part three deals with the significance of family, parental influences, and biology in gendered career choices, and the last section considers social and institutional constraints on women’s career development. Each of these broad sections includes several chapters that analyze large-scale samples from specific countries using sophisticated statistical techniques in attempts to shed light on gendered occupational representation. In this review, I only highlight a few of these contributions.
While Lucy Sells first proposed the hypothesis that mathematics achievement in early high school acts as a critical filter for STEM careers (Sells 1980), the authors of two chapters on this topic in the first part of the book provide complex analyses of math’s role in determining young women’s and men’s educational and occupational aspirations. Jennifer Shapka, Jose Domene and Daniel Keating, in a study of mathematics achievement and educational and occupation aspirations of Anglophone Canadian youth over a period of 5 years (grade 9 to 3 years beyond secondary school), used hierarchical linear modeling techniques to examine how aspired occupational prestige and educational aspirations changed for young women and men over time. The researchers found that high math achievers aspired to higher prestige occupations than low achievers and that low math achievers’ occupational aspirations decreased more rapidly than those of high achievers. High math achievers also maintained high educational aspirations over time, while low math achievers’ educational aspirations were consistently low, even when controlling for general school achievement and perceived math abilities. While finding gender variations in educational aspirations, the study did not find gender differences in the prestige level of occupations to which the young women and men aspired. However, the researchers did not follow the sample long enough to determine whether math achievement affected actual educational and occupational outcomes. Hence, there is no way to know if the high math achieving women might have been more likely than their male counterparts to pursue high prestige non-scientific professional study and prestigious, but other than STEM, occupations.
The second study on this topic, conducted by Xin Ma and Willis Johnson, using longitudinal data from a 6-year study of US youth (grades 7 through 12) and multiple regression techniques, examined which math courses in the US secondary school curriculum predicted choices of college majors and occupational aspirations. The researchers found that Algebra II played a critical role in career choices of males and calculus was a critical filter determining whether females declared science and engineering majors rather than majors in the liberal arts. For young women, taking calculus in Grade 12 was strongly and positively correlated with college enrollment in science and engineering. The researchers were not able to determine, however, whether the experience in a calculus class led the young women to subsequently major in science or engineering, or whether those who did so had already planned to pursue STEM majors before taking calculus. Unfortunately, relying solely on existing quantitative data did not allow the researchers to explain the process of how male and female students made decisions regarding course taking in preparation for college majors and future careers.
Several studies of psychological processes and gendered participation in math and science in the second part of the book attempt to illuminate how individual motivations, self-concepts, perceptions and commitments shape choices of college majors and career aspirations. A particularly noteworthy study using longitudinal data from two different educational systems compared gendered math and English senior high school enrollments in the United States and Germany. The authors, Gabriel Nagy, Jessica Garrett, Ulrich Trautwein, Kai S. Cortina, Jurgen Baumert, and Jacquelynne S. Eccles, found that gender differences in choosing these subjects were greater in the German than in the US system and were related to self-concepts as well as perceived intrinsic value of the subjects in Germany while based more on perceived ability in the US schools. Taken together, the psychological studies demonstrate that influence of individual factors operates differently for women than for men, however, most of the authors indicated that educational structures provide the context within which individual choices are enacted and are just as important to examine as the psychological variables. Thus, as the authors of the comparative USA and German study concluded, “school systems that require early specialization can lead to the amplification of gendered course choices…and may even increase the gender segmentation of the workforce” (p.139).
Although the chapters focused on the importance of family considerations in gendered occupational choices generally do not offer new or surprising findings, based on large and longitudinal samples, they confirm women’s continuing desire to balance work and family responsibilities as well as the importance of parents’ beliefs and expectations in shaping children’s occupational choices. Since parents communicate both overtly and subtly what they would like their children to become, with very few steering their daughters into activities and education that lead to careers in STEM fields, family influences thus contribute to women’s low participation in science and technology occupations.
Finally, several of the studies included in this volume deal with institutional barriers to women’s career development. They examine the gendered organizational cultures and practices which create unfriendly climates for women. Perhaps the most interesting of this group of chapters focuses on gendered occupations in Turkey where the authors, Ahu That, Mustafa F. Ozbilgin, and Fatma Kusku, conducted surveys and interviews with engineering students, professional workers and banking employees to explore gender perceptions and stereotypes. The study found that despite progressive reforms and legislation which have created increased career opportunities for women in male-dominated fields, especially in professional occupations including STEM fields, women continue to experience gendered outcomes in organizational life. For instance, despite Turkey’s relatively high proportion of female engineering students (34.8%, which is significantly higher than in most of Europe and in the United States), male engineering students reported beliefs that women have lower levels of interest in engineering than men and that women are less suited to engineering fields. The authors conclude, as do others in this section, that organizations need to change their cultures and practices in order to end discrimination against and exclusion of women in the workplace.
In its totality, the volume succeeds in bringing together studies from several fields, various perspectives, and numerous countries that identify the factors educators, legislators, and others need to consider when designing interventions aimed at improving career outcomes for women in STEM fields. To my knowledge, no other book to date has undertaken this task. However, while the editors mention a need for synthesis of this extensive material, they do not provide a concluding chapter that could have integrated the four sections of the book and given readers a more comprehensive understanding of how the various factors contribute to gendered occupational outcomes. Additionally, while the inclusion mainly of studies that relied on multiple waves of longitudinal data allowed for drawing conclusions about which variables affect women’s and men’s career choices over time, the studies reveal very little about such processes from the perspectives and experiences of the study participants. Hence, these studies raise as many research questions as they attempt to answer. Only a multi-method approach that combines both longitudinal quantitative and qualitative data can yield comprehensive explanations of this phenomenon. The study of gendered occupations in Turkey which I discussed above provides such an approach, but unfortunately is the only one in this collection.
Finally, while the editors acknowledge in their introduction that there is a need “to examine how explanatory models focusing on individual motivations, parental beliefs, and broader social and institutional influences operate across different ethnic, racial and socio-economic groups” within Western countries such as the United States (p. 7), the studies in this volume, for the most part, do not examine data for diverse groups of women and men and their occupational outcomes. While no book can address all of the complexities of a topic, the lack of data on race, ethnicity and class and their intersection with gender in most of the studies is a serious omission.
Nevertheless, this volume should be of interest to educators, policymakers and legislators who want to create more successful programs and interventions to improve occupational outcomes for women in STEM fields. It also could be used as a text in upper level undergraduate and graduate courses on gender and science, in sociology of occupations and in educational psychology courses, as well as in quantitative methods courses due to the focus on large-scale longitudinal samples and advanced statistical techniques.