Women With Both High Math and Verbal Abilities Appear Less Likely to Choose Science Careers Because Dual Skills Confer More Career Options

Issue Date: 
March 25, 2013

There has been ongoing public discussion about the need to educate and recruit more young Americans for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Now a just-published study by the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan offers one potential solution to this perennial problem: more concentrated efforts to encourage women who already possess the necessary skills.

It turns out that there is a pre-existing pool of women with both high math and high verbal ability; it’s just that they seem to be more likely to choose careers outside of science because their combination of skills provides them with more career options, according to the Pitt/Michigan study, published March 19 in Psychological Science.

Principal Investigator and Pitt Assistant Professor of Psychology in Education Ming-Te Wang and collaborators at the University of Michigan found that the mean SAT math score of a group of men and women with the combination of high math and high verbal scores was 720, while the mean SAT verbal score was 696, both out of a possible 800. This group of math and verbal high achievers included a significantly higher proportion of women (63 percent) than men (37 percent).

Additionally, the researchers found that women in the group of men and women with high math scores and only moderate verbal scores were the ones more likely to choose STEM careers. The mean math SAT score for this group was 721, while the mean verbal SAT score was 655.

“Our study suggests that it’s not lack of ability or difference in ability that orients females to pursue non-STEM careers but the fact that they can consider a wider range of occupations because of their combination of excellent math and verbal skills,” said Wang. “This highlights the need for educators and policy makers to shift the focus away from trying to strengthen girls’ STEM-related abilities and instead tap the potential of these girls who are highly skilled in both the math and verbal domains to go into STEM fields.”

Wang and his collaborators examined data on 1,490 college-bound U.S. students, with the information drawn from the University of Michigan’s Longitudinal Study of American Youth. The subjects in the Michigan Longitudinal Study were surveyed by Michigan in two waves: once in the 12th grade (1992) and again at age 33 (2007). The subjects completed telephone interviews, which required them to update their educational and occupational histories from high school through the time of the second-wave survey. Only subjects who participated in both waves were included in Wang’s study; all had received a four-year college degree by the time of the second-wave survey. The participants were 49 percent female and 51 percent male. 

The survey evaluated such factors as participants’ SAT scores, family needs, whether they liked working with people or things, their devotion to a career, and, ultimately, the occupations they chose by age 33.

The researchers found, from their analysis of the Michigan Longitudinal Study data, that men and women who felt more successful in mathematics than in verbal-related disciplines were more likely to work in STEM fields by the time they had reached the age of 33. Mathematics, said Wang, played a role in these individuals’ identities because they excelled within the discipline, driving them to pursue STEM-related jobs.

“We need to make sure girls and women—especially those with the combination of high math and high verbal skills—are well informed regarding the full diversity of options available in STEM careers,” said Wang. “We want them to see the value in these disciplines so they won’t shy away from science- or math-related careers because of lack of information, misinformation, or stereotypes.”
Wang’s coauthors include the University of Michigan’s Jacquelynne Eccles and Sarah Kenny.

The paper is titled “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”