Perception of gender bias influences women's choice of college major

STEM professions are among the hottest jobs of 2018, and it's not hard to see why. The jobs consistently receive high ratings for salary, worker satisfaction, and work-life balance.

Few women, however, reap the benefits of a STEM career. Women are underrepresented in engineering (14%), computer science (25%), and physical science (39%) positions, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. Women are also underrepresented in non-STEM fields like philosophy.

Some believe that women avoid STEM careers because they don't like math or science, says Joseph Cimpian, an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University.

But women may be less likely to choose specific majors if they perceive gender discrimination in those fields, finds a new study published in the American Educational Research Journal.

The study suggests that women are not avoiding STEM because they dislike math or science, but because they "don't like to be discriminated against," says Cimpian, the study's senior author.

Why your students are "phoning a friend" to choose their college major

To understand what attributes attract or repel women to a field of study, researchers surveyed 330 undergraduate students on whether different majors exhibit six traits: math, science, gender bias against women, helpfulness, money, and creativity. The students' survey responses were then compared to the major choices of longitudinal sample of 4,850 U.S. students.

When women choose their major, the degree of gender discrimination they perceive in the field is the most predictive attribute, says Cimpian.

To boost female representation in certain disciplines, higher ed leaders must identify and challenge discriminatory messages that suggest either gender is inherently primed to succeed in certain fields, Cimpian suggests.

Many universities are already taking steps to show female students they can succeed in male-dominated fields. 

Harvey Mudd College, for example, connects female students with women working in STEM fields, which helps them envision themselves in those roles. "Women in STEM fields benefit greatly from having female faculty role models," says college president Maria Klawe. Harvey Mudd also sends groups of students to professional conferences for women in STEM, such as the Society of Women Engineers conference and the Grace Hopper Celebration. In just a few years, Harvey Mudd increased its share of female computer science graduates from 10% to 40% (New York University release, 1/24).

Help students select the right major


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