Women are still alarmingly underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). According to a study published this month, only 24 percent of STEM jobs are held by women, a figure that hasn't budged in a decade. There are many theories as to why, but until this past week, perhaps few would have thought that a women's desire to be hot was one of them.
But four new studies by Lora Park, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, show that when women are cued to think about romantic goals, they are turned off by STEM jobs, which are perceived to be masculine, and drawn to the fields of humanities, education and social sciences, which are viewed as more feminine.
In one study, participants viewed romantic scenes, like dimly-lit restaurants, waterfront sunsets and candles, as well as intellectual cues like libraries, books and spectacles.
Other volunteers overheard a conversation about a recent date, test or visit from a friend, intended to activate romantic, intelligence, and friendship goals, respectively.
Participants then filled in questionnaires gauging their interest in STEM compared to other disciplines, as well as their inclination toward various academic majors.
When women were primed for romantic goals, their interest in STEM and math/science majors dropped.
In another study, STEM-oriented women were asked to keep a daily diary for three weeks, documenting their romantic activities, STEM work, and their sense of desirability.
When women were active in romance, it turned out that they felt more attractive, but did less math on that day, and the next one too.
Most women clearly don't feel that calculating derivatives boosts their sex appeal, and when boosting their sex appeal is on the agenda, the math homework takes the backseat.
Or in the words of Park and her colleagues: "pursuing intelligence goals in masculine fields, such as STEM, conflicts with pursuing romantic goals associated with traditional romantic scripts and gender norms."
This explanation was touched on in a report published last year by the American Association of University Women, "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics." Although girls and boys perform just as well in math at school, many girls choose not to pursue the subject, it argued, because of the negative stereotype.
The belief that men were superior in the field also led girls to underestimate their own abilities, compared to boys with similar talents. They were victims, too, of the same kind of "stereotype threat" that caused black students to perform worse on the SAT verbal reasoning test when told beforehand that it would measure their cognitive ability.
Workplace bias was also a factor, according to the report. And women simply feel less comfortable in college STEM departments, and have few female role models, discouraging them from continuing that field of study.
No doubt these forces play a huge role, but Park's findings also reveal a deeper influence at play, and one that can't be remedied by recruitment programs, mentoring, and better work-life practices.
It can only be fixed by changing a stereotype. By making math hot.
Already, a couple of high profile women are fighting the good fight. Danica McKellar, who played Kevin Arnold's love interest, Winnie Cooper, on "The Wonder Years" TV series, co-proved a math theorem after college, and became the bona fide goddess of sexy smarts, publishing three increasingly charged bestselling books: "Math Doesn't Suck," "Kiss My Math," and "Hot X: Algebra Exposed."
Before she left high school, Natalie Portman co-authored two journal articles and made it to the semifinal rounds of the Intel Science Talent Search, the nation's most prestigious research competition. While studying psychology at Harvard, she filmed "Star Wars Episode II," "Garden State" and "Closer," becoming the heartthrob of fantasy fans, indie teens, and the whole world, respectively.
But McKellar and Portman remain exceptions to the rule that places "beauty" and "brains" in competing camps for girls. As a result, fewer women are entering STEM and getting the high salaries that come with it. Women working in STEM earn 33 percent more than their female counterparts in other fields, according to a study published last month by the U.S. Commerce Department's Economics and Statistics Administration.
This is partly because the gender wage gap is narrower in STEM. Women earn 86 cents to the male STEM worker's dollar, compared to 78 cents for women generally.
And it's not just bad for women; it's bad for America.
STEM is becoming the backbone of the U.S. economy, and with half the population deterred from those careers, America will suffer in the global competition for innovation. So giving math an injection of sex appeal shouldn't just be the work of a lone crusader like McKellar. It should be on the highest government agenda.
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