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Mathematics—a Critical Filter for STEM-Related Career Choices? A Longitudinal Examination among Australian and U.S. Adolescents

Abstract

Although women have made progress in entering scientific careers in biology, they remain underrepresented in mathematically intensive fields such as physics. We investigated whether gender differences in mathematics motivation and socialisers’ perceptions impacted choices for diverse STEM careers of varying mathematical intensity. Drawing on expectancy-value theory, we tested structural equation models in which adolescents’ preferred careers related to each of physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics were predicted by prior mathematical performance, motivations, and mothers’ perceptions. We explored potential differences in gendered processes of influence using multigroup models. Samples were 331 Australian adolescents followed from 9th to 11th grade in 1998 and 277 U.S. adolescents from 9th to 12th grade in 2009–10. In both samples female adolescents preferred biological careers more than males did; male adolescents preferred physics-related careers and also mathematical careers in the Australian sample. Mothers’ perceptions were important to female and male adolescents’ mathematics motivations; gendered motivations were more evident in the Australian sample. Mathematics interest played the strongest role in male adolescents’ preferred careers, whereas actual or perceived mathematical achievements were most important for females, demonstrating the impacts of mathematical motivations on preferences for diverse STEM careers.

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Acknowledgments

The STEPS Study (www.stepsstudy.org) was supported by Australian Research Council Discovery grant DP110100472 and ARF awarded to Watt. The U.S. study was supported by the National Science Foundation DRL 0814750 to Hyde and Harackiewicz; and the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Award #R305B090009 to the University of Wisconsin—Madison. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the U.S. Department of Education or the National Science Foundation; we thank Dan Lamanna, Maria Mens, Stefan Slater, and Ryan Svoboda for assistance with career coding; and Carlie Allison and Corinne Boldt for assistance with data collection.

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Helen M. G. Watt, Janet S. Hyde, Jennifer Petersen, Zoe A. Morris, Christopher S. Rozek & Judith M. Harackiewicz

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Watt, H.M.G., Hyde, J.S., Petersen, J. et al. Mathematics—a Critical Filter for STEM-Related Career Choices? A Longitudinal Examination among Australian and U.S. Adolescents. Sex Roles 77, 254–271 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0711-1

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Keywords

  • Gender
  • STEM
  • Mathematics
  • Critical filter
  • Career choice
  • Expectancy-value theory
  • High school