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Women don’t choose STEM majors because society forces them to be feminine, study says

It’s not intelligently disputed that women earn less than men on average because they tend to major in less-lucrative subjects.

So researchers have turned to a new culprit: “femininity norms.”

A new paper published in the journal Gender Issues by University of Oklahoma sociologists finds that “women who reported greater conformity to feminine norms generally had significantly lower odds of choosing a major” related to science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields, as well as pre-med fields:

Data were collected from 657 undergraduate female students at one US university. Participants answered questions about their intended or current study programme. They completed the Conformity to Feminine Norms Inventory which measures to what degree women conform to eight dominant feminine norms held in high esteem in US culture. This includes being relationship-orientated, caring for children, thinness, sexual fidelity, modesty, being domestic and physical appearance.

“Interestingly,” those who conform more to “the domesticity norm” – isolated from the other norms – were more likely to study STEM and pre-med, the study finds.

This is society’s fault, according to one of the authors, Ann Beutel:

At least some of the barriers to increased gender integration of academic fields of study may come from cultural norms about gender, and in particular femininity, which have been durable in spite of increases in gender egalitarian ideology and women’s educational attainment and labor force participation.

Inside Higher Ed notes the paper makes an implied case for socially engineering girls before they even enter school:

“Through socialization processes, children and adolescents learn and internalize these gender norms, stereotypes and beliefs, and in turn develop their own gendered preferences,” the paper reads. Additionally, women’s gendered expectations about their futures — having roles as a wife and a mother — might influence them to choose majors that would lead to occupations that would be more compatible for caring for a family.

Read the publisher’s summary of the paper and Inside Higher Ed story.

MORE: Data show women overwhelmingly choose less lucrative majors

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