There’s been a lot of discussion here about women not going for guys in the STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It’s pretty much accepted as a given – certainly the personal testimony of guys in the comment threads would support this claim. The general perception is that in college, guys who major in the STEM disciplines are a completely different population than guys who play sports, or join frats, or engage in other activities that appear to make them catnip for college women, e.g. playing in a non-marching band.
I confess to partiality in this area. I have always appreciated highly intelligent men, and many of the smartest guys reside in these majors. My father was a chemist who went on to have a very successful sales career. My brother, a physicist, has always done well with women. My favorite childhood toy was a chemistry set. I didn’t grow up thinking scientists were nerds, and I still don’t. Yet guys in these fields, especially Engineering – feel frustrated and disappointed as they watch attractive women rush forward to subject themselves to demeaning treatment by dumb jocks. Who can blame them? Why do STEM guys feel like second-class citizens with women?
Several theories have been floated here about why STEM guys are marginalized:
- They’re nerdy, and women don’t like nerds.
- They’re so intelligent that they lack the ability to relate to “normal” people, or are on the autism spectrum, e.g. Asperger’s.
- They’re in careers that require less interaction with people, and women like men who have influence over others.
- They’re introverted – their personality traits don’t lend themselves to being socially adventurous.
- They’re outnumbered – they have less exposure to college women by virtue of being in a male-dominated major.
- They tend to be the “nice guys” rather than the thugs, which make them unappealing to women.
- They’re rule followers – they don’t tend to break out of the pack in any way to achieve greatness.
In the interest of gaining a better understanding of this problem, I’ve explored these perceptions. My research has been cursory rather than comprehensive, but I did learn some things that I found interesting and perhaps worth discussing.
Cultural Representations of STEM Professionals
The nerd stereotype was comedic fodder back in the 60s. Fred McMurray played The Absent Minded Professor in ’61, and in ’63, Jerry Lewis’ portrayal of the Nutty Professor cemented a stereotype often featured in films since. Rick Moranis in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Clint Howard in the Austin Powers movies, Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future, all play to stereotype.
In a project funded by the National Science Project to recruit women to STEM careers, the cultural issue was addressed:
“One off-shoot of the research on the effects of occupational and sex-role stereotypes is the role of the media in presenting and perpetuating them. Media representations are not only a reflection of social norms but also reinforce them. Steinke et al. (2006) found that the largest percentage (40%) of the 304 middle school science students in their study derived their ideas about what a scientist looks like from television and films.
The personalities of those who go into STEM fields are also stereotyped. For example, a 2006 Dilbert calendar portrayed engineers as dull, boring, and lacking in social graces. Steinke et al. (2006) report on a 1957 study in which “students described scientists as neglectful toward their wives, children and friends (Mean & Metraux, 1957)” (p. 3). Smith (2000) mentions two more recent studies illustrating that this image of STEM professionals as cold and non-nurturing has not changed. Steinke et al. (2006) conducted their own study on the image of scientists with three 7th grade science classes in the Midwestern U.S. Two of the classes received media literacy interventions, and the third did not. One day after the intervention, when students in all three classes were asked to draw scientists, the largest percentage of drawings included stereotyped elements such as male gender, wearing glasses and a lab coat, having “crazy hair,” and working in a laboratory (Steinke et al., 2006, p. 8). The authors conclude that the media literacy interventions did not work.”
Personality Traits of STEM Professionals
My hypothesis as I began investigating this aspect was that STEM men tend to be highly introverted, but that stereotype did not hold up.
I. Meyers-Briggs Results
Seven of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types lend themselves nicely to STEM careers:
Inspector: ISTJ - Medical doctor, computer programmer, systems analyst, computer specialist, accountant and engineer and other technicians.
Craftsman: ISTP - Forensic pathologist, computer programmer, system analyst, computer specialist, engineers, technicians.
Mastermind: INTJ - Scientist, engineer, professor, medical doctor, dentist, computer programmer, systems analyst, computer specialist, life scientists and physicists.
Field Marshall: ENTJ - Computer consultant, systems researchers and analysts.
Architect: INTP - Scientist (especially Physics and Chemical scientists), mathematician, computer programmers, systems analyst, computer specialist, technical writer, engineer, forensic research.
Inventor: ENTP - Computer programmer, computer specialist, computer systems analysts, scientist, engineer.
Champion: ENFP - Computer programmer, systems analyst, computer specialist, scientist, and engineer.
II. The Typical Mechanical Engineer
One study (Personnel Psychology, 2006) of the personality of the Mechanical Engineer made the following observations:
(1) Mechanical engineers are emotionally stable. They ordinarily make compatible marriages, maintain comfortable human relations, and are usually free of neurotic and psychosomatic symptoms.
(2) Interpersonal relations are harmonious but casual. Impersonality is one of their more common traits.
(3) An analytical interest in people is rare.
(4) They avoid introspection and self-examination. Insight is often shallow. This lack of self-understanding makes them less perceptive of social nuances and relatively insensitive to the less obvious needs of others.
(5) Engineers are straightforward, direct, and self-sufficient.
(6) They are inclined to be matter-of-fact.
7) Engineers are energetic. When faced with problems, they are advocates of the direct action approach. Polite diplomacy and oblique conciliatory tactics are foreign to their nature.
(8) Most of them are goal-oriented, serious-minded, and conscientious.
(9) They like phenomena to be definitely structured; there is a fundamental aversion to ambiguity. This fondness for structure and order may underline their essentially authoritarian approach.
(10) Engineers have definitely masculine traits and interests.
(11) Social participation is normal in amount. The explanation is more a matter of conventionality and social conformity than any profound interest in people. It is not true that engineers are usually introverts. What sometimes makes them appear so is their characteristic impersonality.
Gender Imbalance in STEM Careers
Men outnumber women (73% vs. 27% overall) in all sectors of employment for science and engineering. However, the number of women in certain fields has risen significantly. Women now outnumber men in Biology and Chemistry. They are well represented in Math. While there has been some growth in Physics, Computer Science and Engineering, those fields are still 80% male.
The masculine communication style male engineers prefer is hardly surprising, but is very different from female approaches to communication. Another study looking at the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields found one important reason women opt out of these careers (Psychological Science, 2010):
“We argue that one important reason for this discrepancy is that STEM careers are perceived as less likely than careers in other fields to fulfill communal goals (e.g., working with or helping other people). Such perceptions might disproportionately affect women’s career decisions, because women tend to endorse communal goals more than men. As predicted, we found that STEM careers, relative to other careers, were perceived to impede communal goals. Moreover, communal-goal endorsement negatively predicted interest in STEM careers, even when controlling for past experience and self-efficacy in science and mathematics.”
The NSF project affirms that women prefer to work collaboratively, and perceive that STEM careers tend to be more competitive:
“The difference theory of gender assumes that women prefer to work cooperatively or collaboratively rather than competitively (Goodwin, 2006; Smith, 2000). Sanders (2005) mentions a study conducted in England in which female children did computer tasks collaboratively, regardless of the instructions they were given. Eccles (1987) cites several studies showing that “girls have more positive attitudes toward math in classrooms characterized by low levels of competition among the students, high levels of cooperative learning or individualistic learning structure, and high levels of teacher communication of both the intrinsic value of math and the link between math and various interesting occupations.
In a study of female academic chemists, Fassinger et al. (2004) found that participants “rejected an achievement approach based on besting others and winning external accolades.” Rather, participants favored “task mastery and performance excellence, leadership of others, and internal standards of judging one’s success,” and secondarily, by taking charge in leadership positions. Finally, Smith (2000) says that women are more concerned than men with the social dimensions of activities. This idea is supported by a study reported by Dyer (2004). Briefly, the study found that in mixed sex engineering teams, the men became more task-focused while the women became both task-focused and group-oriented.”
College Experience of STEM Majors
The admission requirements for most engineering programs are extremely rigorous – more rigorous than for Arts and Sciences. Most universities that have an engineering program have a separate admissions process for engineering. Commonly, there is a high dropout rate from engineering after the first year, and most schools allow engineering majors to transfer easily to Arts and Sciences. On the other hand, it is quite difficult to transfer from A&S to Engineering, requiring another application.
Things don’t get any easier with matriculation. STEM Majors have extremely rigorous coursework as well, with frequent tests. Whether Engineering, Pre-Med, other Science or Math, these students must budget their time carefully. They are not the most likely students to attend tailgates, parties, etc. They are often the kids who have staked out favorite spots in the library. During finals in some schools, STEM majors pull all nighters in the library, sleeping in their chairs and bringing along a toothbrush and clean shirt. There is no STEM major where one can BS one’s way through a course, and the grading tends to be objective, not rewarding kids for being attractive, well spoken, etc.
As mentioned above, the gender ratio in Engineering schools is 80/20, so male students have limited opportunities for interacting with women, regardless of their level of interest.
It should be noted that career prospects for STEM majors are extremely strong. As the value of a liberal arts education continues to decline in monetary terms, STEM majors are well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities in an increasingly service/technology driven economy. Both the health care and finance industries will seek the expertise of STEM majors as reforms are implemented.
Implications and Further Questions
1. The STEM fields have a major PR problem. Children who are gifted in these subjects grow up understanding that there is nothing cool about what they do. They find companionship with one another, understanding early on that they are excluded from the typical popular kids. The rare Big Man on Campus who is a STEM major is popular despite being brainy.
2. There is considerable variation within the STEM disciplines. A Pre-med major may have little in common with an Electrical Engineering major.
3. Engineers may be social and extroverted, but also tend to be practical and not inclined toward pretense or social niceties. They are extremely straight shooters, and dislike uncertainty. This makes them less well suited to casual hookups, which require a lot of BSing, pretending and generally smooth moves. Engineers are not actors, but players are. Going into a casual fling with a highly uncertain outcome is not the typical Engineering major’s preference. He is more suited to relationships than random hookups, though just like any other guy, he wouldn’t be likely to turn down an invitation for a one-night stand
4. Women have taken to the sciences with enthusiasm, but fewer choose technology or engineering. There is a strong (and perhaps accurate) perception that the work culture is extremely male. This is a real chicken or egg question – would communication practices and collaborative assignments be more prevalent if there were more women? Or is there something about the nature of Engineering that suits male nature particularly well?
5. STEM majors generally work their asses off in college. While the athletes take easy Geology (Rocks for Jocks) or easy Economics (Stocks for Jocks), STEM majors rack up many hours per week hitting the books and the lab. This naturally leads to a lower prioritization of social opportunities, perhaps reluctantly.
6. STEM guys don’t meet many women in class. At a university that has both Engineering and Arts and Sciences, there is at least some potential for overlap as guys fulfill humanities requirements. At engineering schools, however, it’s a four-year sausage fest. Guys have limited exposure and get limited practice hitting on interacting with women.
7. People entering STEM careers are well-positioned for future career growth. This is small comfort, I know, when a guy is 20 and horny as hell. Still, there may be some satisfaction in knowing that when the high school quarterback is at your 10th reunion looking bloated as he belts back another Heineken, you’ll be doing quite nicely for yourself, and your value in the sexual marketplace will have appreciated considerably.
I’ll close with a passage I happened to read last night in the book Family Tree by Carol Cadwalladr. It happens to closely resemble my own seduction by an Engineer turned MBA. I think it’s charming.
“Alistair was standing in the corner of the room. I noticed him because he seemed to be staring at me. I saw him take a swig of his wine and then he walked over.
“I could smell you from the other side of the room,” he said. I looked at him. I’d vaguely seen him around before but we had never actually met. He was doing some sort of science, I knew that. The party was full of them. Scientists. The type that got up early to cycle off to their labs.
“That’s not the greatest of lines, you know.”
“It’s your pheromones. They’re saying that you want to have sex with me.”
I changed my mind. It was quite a good line.
“You must have mistranslated. They actually said, ‘Oh God. I can’t believe you’ve brought me to a party full of scientists.’”
He came closer, swaying slightly, and looked down my top.
His face was only inches away and I could see his freckles, the pores of his skin, his eyelashes, the flashes of yellow in the pupils of his eyes.
“Your body is saying you want to have sex with me; it just hasn’t communicated that fact to your mind yet.”
Actually, it had. Alistair was tall, with rumpled sand-colored hair. When he smiled, his lips actually turned up at the corners. More importantly, he appeared to fancy me.
“Man is the only mammal who conceals ovulation, ” he said. He sounded so sure of himself. That was attractive too.
…”And I thought scientists were boring,” I said. “When actually they’re such good conversationalists.”
He’d laughed at that. Although he’d laughed even more when I’d told him I was doing Cultural Studies.
The funny thing was that he was right. I must have been ovulating. Otherwise how would I have got pregnant?