When a Field's Reputation Precedes It

Study finds that a given discipline's perceived gender bias plays the biggest role in whether women choose to major in it.

January 25, 2018
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Theories abound as to why women remain underrepresented in many fields. A new study says that perceived gender bias in a given discipline is the primary criterion women use for selecting a college major, not the perception that a field is science or math oriented (sorry, Larry Summers).

Departments “need to think through what types of messages they may be sending about gender and who belongs in a particular major,” said lead author Colleen Ganley, an assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University. “These messages could be quite subtle, but, based on our data, people seem to be picking up on them.”

It’s problematic if men and women are making college-major decisions based on whether or not they think a field is “for them,” she said, as such considerations don’t make for “unconstrained choices.”

Ganley co-wrote her study with Casey E. George, an assistant professor of educational leadership, evaluation and organizational development at the University of Louisville; Joseph R. Cimpian, associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University; and Martha B. Makowski, an assistant professor of math education at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Their work, published in American Educational Research Journal, centered on two questions: How do undergraduates perceive different “traits” of college majors, and does perceived gender bias against women predict gender differences in college majors -- over and above differences between male and female students and other disciplinary characteristics?

In asking such questions, the researchers hoped to move beyond the existing literature’s common science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)/non-STEM dichotomy. That is, much of the previous research on why women choose certain majors more than others tends to divide the disciplines into those that deal in science and math and those that don’t. Such an approach, however, doesn’t explain why certain non-STEM fields, such as philosophy, remain male dominated, Ganley and her co-authors point out.

Instead, the researchers asked 330 undergraduates in a psychology class at a large, unnamed Southeastern university to rate 20 popular college majors by a series of underlying characteristics, or traits. They did so using scales measuring the extent to which a major is perceived as being oriented toward math, science, service, money, creativity -- and men, with a bias against women.

The researchers’ main focus after that was to examine the role of perceived gender bias in college major choices after accounting for the math and science orientation, as well as the other control variables.

To account for how individual differences also affect major choices, Ganley and her colleagues analyzed and integrated data on 4,850 men and women in a large, nationally representative data set, the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics’ Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002. They also matched men and women who had similar characteristics, such as demographics, academic preparation and attitudes toward math, to see if that changed their results (it didn't).

Unsurprisingly to the researchers, they found fairly strong relationships between some of the six major perceived traits. Math and money orientation were related, as were gender bias and money orientation, for example.

Most significantly, students who majored in fields perceived to be gender biased were 50 percentage points more likely to be male, after taking into account all major traits.

Whether a major is STEM “is not the most important determiner of gender differences in college majors,” the study says. “The results suggest that perceived gender discrimination, above and beyond perceived gender representation, is an important factor to consider when determining the roots of gender differences in college majors.”

The study also provides evidence that if women didn’t worry about gender bias when picking a major, they might be more inclined to choose fields that often lead to higher-paying careers.

To help identify fields with gender bias on individual campuses, the study suggests that institutions issue climate surveys and help faculty members, staff and students assess their own implicit biases.

Importantly, the study notes that gender bias not only hurts women and limits their career options, but it does so to men as well. “Future research should address the extent to which gender discrimination has an impact on both men and women’s choice of major,” Ganley and her colleagues wrote. “The present study cannot tease apart whether only women, only men, or both men and women might be making decisions based on perceived gender discrimination.”

Liesl Folks, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University at Buffalo, of the State University of New York, is leading a new study aimed at increasing the retention of women in STEM career paths. One particular feature of the NAVIGATE Project, as it's called, is that it uses the case study method, in which students are involved in active problem solving using formal frameworks such as decision trees to solve problems with female protagonists. Case studies are common in certain fields, but not STEM. And another recent study found that textbooks in economics -- another male-dominated field -- strongly favor male protagonists, both real and imagined.

“Our own experience and data align with the data reported in this new study,” Folks said, “that girls and women are all too familiar with what constitutes gender bias, inequity and discrimination.” And as Ganley’s study highlights, she added, “they’ll tend to avoid placing themselves in situations where they are likely to be subjected to these negative experiences.”


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