Volume 34, No. 8 September 2003

  Study offers clues on why women choose medicine over engineering
Print version: page 13

Young women's beliefs and values about working with and for people may be keeping them from careers in physics, engineering, astronomy and information technology, according to research presented at the spring meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.

University of Michigan psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles, PhD, and research scientist Mina Vida studied young women and men who pursued science careers and found that the girls in their study tended to choose careers in the biological sciences--social sciences, environmental sciences and medicine--over the mathematically based sciences because they perceived the latter to be less people-oriented and to have less value to society.

"They think of these jobs as isolating or mechanical," says Eccles, who is a professor of psychology, women's studies and education and the director of the Gender and Achievement Research Program at the University of Michigan. "Although these girls might be interested in physics and are confident of their mathematical abilities, they choose to go into the biological sciences or medicine because they want a job that more directly helps people."

The study, which was funded by organizations including the Spencer Foundation, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Science Foundation, is based on data collected over 17 years as part of the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions (MSALT). MSALT is following more than 1,700 Michigan students from sixth grade through young adulthood, tracing the development of their achievement-related beliefs, self-perceptions, values and psychological adjustment and analyzing how each affects their educational and occupational choices.

For this study, Eccles and Vida compared young women and men who went into the social and biological sciences versus the physical sciences. They found that girls and boys who were more people-oriented--who placed a high value on doing work that helped and involved people--were two to three times more likely to chose college majors and careers in the biological sciences than the mathematically-based sciences. Girls were more likely to be people-oriented and placed a higher value on English than mathematics, while boys ranked the value of mathematics more highly.

"Boys' beliefs and values are pulling them toward [mathematically based sciences] while girls' are pushing them in other directions," says Eccles.

The researchers also found that math and science self-confidence and performance anxiety played smaller roles in career choice in their study than previous studies have found, indicating that simply raising girls' confidence about math and science is not enough to draw them to mathematically based sciences, says Eccles.

More programs are needed that show young people how physics, math and engineering jobs are people-oriented and valuable to society, says Eccles, who points to a University of Michigan program called GO-GIRL as a prime example.

"We do a bad job of explaining to young people what you do in different jobs---they don't think that engineers design and build buildings that work efficiently and safely for the people who use them," says Eccles. "If you want to attract women to these types of jobs, you need to provide more information about them and how they can provide young women with opportunities to fulfill their broader occupational and personal goals."


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