Opting out? Gender, Societal Affluence, and 8th Graders’ Aspirations for Math Jobs

Sunday, February 14, 2016: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM
Hoover (Marriott Wardman Park)
Maria Charles, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA
The sex segregation of many scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematical (“STEM”) fields follows surprising international patterns: Women’s representation is considerably weaker in rich, reputably gender-progressive countries than in poor gender-traditional ones. One obvious explanation for this pattern is that the economic costs associated with pursuit of female-labeled career paths are more easily absorbed in affluent societies. Another explanation is that attitudes toward STEM are more gender-differentiated in affluent contexts. This paper considers evidence for the second explanation.

The attitudinal underpinnings of women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields are explored using data on 32 countries from the Trends in International Math and Science Survey, TIMSS. In 2003 and 2011, students were asked to respond to the statement, “I would like to work in a job that involves math.” Results provide strong evidence that the gender gap in aspirations grows with societal affluence. In other words, not only are opportunities for realizing gender-differentiated career aspirations greater in affluent societies, the aspirations themselves are more gender-differentiated. The observed affluence effect holds even controlling for differences across countries in the economic role of women and in the traits of students (parental education, math achievement, affinity for school, Internet access).

In contexts characterized by widespread material security, labor market choices become more than practical economic decisions; they are also acts of self-expression. “Follow your passions” and “do what you love” are increasingly legitimate principles of career choice. But this broadening of purpose also creates more room for cultural beliefs and biases – including gender stereotypes – to influence career aspirations. Since adolescents do not know in advance what they will love, they may fall back on taken-for-granted beliefs about what boys and girls are good at and enjoy doing. The resultant choices will be experienced not as forced conformity to external gender norms, but as expressions of likes and dislikes that are quintessentially individual. In short, efforts toward individual self-expression may result in expression of gendered selves. This translation of cultural gender beliefs into personal aspirations and “passions” may account for the persistent sex segregation of many STEM fields in advanced industrial societies.

This research was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF #1036679).