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Aug. 25, 2011

Science isn't sexy?

by April Garbuz

Click to enlarge images

By April Garbuz, Wilton High School

Social psychologist Lora Park and a team of researchers examined the impact of everyday striving for romantic goals on women’s attitudes toward science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Their results, which were published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, were consistent with the hypothesis that women may distance themselves from STEM when their goal is to be romantically desirable, because pursuing intelligence-related goals in masculine domains (i.e., STEM studies and careers) conflicts with their pursuit of romantic goals associated with traditional romantic scripts and gender norms. I got a chance to talk to Dr. Park about her results.

Lora Park, social psychology Ph.D

 

Can you tell us about how your studies were conducted?

We conducted four studies at the University at Buffalo, all with undergraduate students (average age, around 19 years old). Studies 1, 2a, and 2b were conducted with students who were recruited from Introductory Psychology courses, and there were a mix of students who indicated that they were interested (or not interested) in STEM fields. In Study 3, we recruited women who were enrolled in a math course at University of Buffalo and who reported being interested in pursuing a degree or career in STEM.

Because goals related to intelligence and friendship are important to college students, Studies 1, 2a, and 3 included intelligence goals and Study 2b included friendship goals as comparison conditions. In Study 1, men and women were exposed to images intended to activate the goal to be romantically desirable or intelligent, and then asked to report their current interest in STEM and preference for academic majors. In the next set of studies, men and women overheard a conversation related to romantic goals, intelligence goals (Study 2a), or friendship goals (Study 2b) then were asked to report their STEM attitudes and preference for academic majors. In Study 3, we used daily diary methods to directly investigate the impact of women’s daily goal strivings on their choice of activities and interpersonal feelings.

What did the results determine about why women are underrepresented in STEM subjects?

Our studies show that when women are exposed to romantic goal cues (whether it be viewing romantic images, overhearing a fleeting conversation about a date, or purposefully adopted romantic goal strivings), they showed less interest in STEM fields vs. other fields. We interpreted these findings through the lens of traditional romantic scripts that exist in Western cultures -– and the gender norms that are part of such scripts -– that encourage women to appear feminine in their attitudes, interests, and behavior in romantic settings.

This process –- in which women distance themselves from masculine attributes when thinking about romance -– could be a relatively automatic process (i.e., women might not be consciously thinking about how romantic goals or cues affects their attitudes or behavior in other areas). Or, it could be a more deliberative process that women engage in -– we don’t have direct evidence as to which it is, but we do show, through the different study procedures, that goals can be activated and pursued in various ways.

Why are woman motivated by romantic goals more then men?

From a young age, women in particular get the message that being attractive and romantically desirable is very important -– they get this message from fairy tales, TV shows, movies, magazines, their peers, etc. The effects of this gendered romantic socialization are cumulative, so that by the time women reach young adulthood, they’ve been exposed to many years of learning that what matters (and what is valued in society) is how attractive and romantically appealing you are.

So I think that young women are especially attuned to wanting to be romantically desirable –- in fact, during young adulthood women are socialized to spend a lot of time and effort being attractive, sexy, appealing, alluring, etc. Because STEM fields are typically viewed as being masculine in American culture (and the Humanities/Arts, as more feminine fields -– and there is data to support this), women who are trying to appear desirable to men may distance themselves from these masculine fields. Instead they show greater interest in Humanities and Arts fields because doing so is compatible with feminine gender norms.

Now that there is an explanation as to why woman are represented more in the Humanities, is there a way to address the issue?

First, I think it’s important that we get the message out –- about how romantic cues and goals can affect women’s academic attitudes and interest -– to as many people as possible, including students, educators, parents, etc. I don’t think people are always aware of how the environment, or years or socialization, (in this case, gendered romantic socialization) can shape one’s academic interests and intentions. So educating people about this phenomenon may help to raise awareness of how romantic goals and academic attitudes in STEM are related.

I think it’s important to emphasize that the findings from these studies reflect overall, averaged responses across participants. There are certainly cases in which some women may not downplay their interest or ability in STEM and might actually flaunt it or show the opposite reaction. With that said, I think it will be important, in future research, to determine what attributes of the person and/or situation could serve to prevent these distancing behaviors from occurring. For example, we have data suggesting that women who endorse more traditional gender role attitudes are most susceptible to the effects of romantic goals; women who don’t subscribe to traditional gender ideologies don’t show the effect.

It will also be important to examine these effects in different age groups; for example, at what age do women start showing these effects? And when do women show less of these effects? Later in life, as their self-confidence/self-certainty about their abilities and interests are strengthened? There are many future directions, and I am excited to continue investigating the questions that arise from this line of research.

________________________________

April Garbuz is a TalkingScience summer intern and a junior at Wilton High School. She loves science, debating, acting, and swimming. Ultimately, she'd like to be a research scientist.

 

About April Garbuz

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