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Individual Interests Explain the Gender Disparities in STEM

The degree of women's underrepresentation varies by STEM fields. Women are now overrepresented in social sciences, yet only constitute a fraction of the engineering workforce. A current study investigated the gender differences in interests as an explanation for the differential distribution of women across sub-disciplines of STEM as well as the overall underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. Specifically, the study reviewed norm data on basic interests from 52 samples in 33 interest inventories published between 1964 and 2007, with a total of 209,810 male and 223,268 female respondents. They found gender differences in interests to vary largely by STEM field, with the largest gender differences in interests favoring men observed in engineering disciplines, and in contrast, gender differences in interests favoring women in social sciences and medical services. Importantly, the gender composition in STEM fields reflects these gender differences in interests.

These findings suggest the role of interests in gendered career choices, several gaps exist in this research. First, no study has looked within STEM fields and investigated men and women's interests in each sub-discipline of STEM. Second, although many studies reported statistics on the percentages of women in STEM occupations, no research has compared the trend in labor statistics with gender differences in interests to examine whether actual percentages of women in each STEM sub-discipline match or mismatch their interests. This information is critical, as it will help identify areas where interventions could be fruitful for increasing the participation of women. Third, past research typically studied the determinants of STEM career choices using individuals as the unit of analysis and rarely incorporated indicators of occupational characteristics to study their effects on men and women's interests at the occupational level. Understanding the interaction between individuals' interests and the characteristics of STEM occupations is essential for explaining why women remain severely underrepresented in some STEM fields and yet are growing in numbers in other STEM fields that are equally demanding intellectually and temporally.

The patterns of gender differences in interests and the actual gender composition in STEM fields were explained by the people-orientation and things-orientation of work environments, and were not associated with the level of quantitative ability required. These findings suggest potential interventions targeting interests in STEM education to facilitate individuals' ability and career development and strategies to reform work environments to better attract and retain women in STEM occupations.

BY: Tauba Ashrafi

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