Very close to 100 years ago, history's most famous female scientist won the second of her two Nobel Prizes (physics in 1903, chemistry in 1911). As the centennial of that milestone approaches, women remain a decided minority in the fields in which Marie Curie so excelled. That they now match or exceed men in the number of life science Ph.D.s and medical degrees awarded makes the contrast with the physical sciences and engineering all the more striking.

For many years, attempts to explain this discrepancy focused on women's supposedly inherent inferiority in math. Rapidly improving achievement has since torpedoed that hypothesis. More recent explanations have emphasized social and personal obstacles, such as discrimination and isolation, that women face when they enter or try to advance in male-dominated fields. Accounts of such tribulations abound, including, recently, Baruch College historian Julie Des Jardins's enlightening The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science.

But new research raises an entirely different possibility. It isn't just that young women give up or are excluded from studying science, this work suggests. Rather, many simply don't choose it in the first place because they believe it "especially incompatible" with goals and values they consider important. "Interest in some careers and disinterest in others results from the intersection of people's goals and their preconceptions of the goals afforded by different careers," write psychologist Amanda Diekman of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and co-authors in a paper titled "Seeking Congruity Between Goals and Roles: A New Look at Why Women Opt Out of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Careers," published in the journal Psychological Science in July. "Because women in particular tend to endorse communal goals," the paper continues, "they are more likely than men to opt out of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers in favor of careers that seem to afford communion."

"Helping others," "serving humanity," "connection with others," "working with people," and "caring for others" exemplify the "communal" goals that women college students on average said they preferred when asked what they wanted to accomplish in their careers. Male students, on the other hand, more often indicated what psychologists call "agentic" goals, such as "demonstrating skill or competence" and seeking "power," "mastery," "independence," "recognition," and "achievement."

People's self-confidence about doing math and science (which psychologists call "self-efficacy") influenced their preferred career goals, but their math and science ability and experience (as demonstrated by their course grades) did not. Both genders, however, agreed that "STEM careers afford communion significantly less than" fields the researchers term "non-STEM male-stereotypic" (MST), such as law or medicine, which have a history of being dominated by men. Careers in the MST category "in turn afford communion less than" those such as social worker, registered nurse, or human resources manager, which the researchers call "female-stereotypic" because of their historic dominance by women.

"We don't really want to imply that prejudice doesn't exist [or] that there aren't self-efficacy differences" between men and women that can hamper women's success in science, Diekman tells Science Careers in an interview. "I think those problems deserve a lot of attention." But, she continues, so does "this other question: ... are [science] careers seen as things that women want to do, given the average differences between men and women" in what they say they hope their work will accomplish?

The obstacle course

Investigations into women's underrepresentation in hard science often appear to be based on a very different assumption: that scientific work is so self-evidently worthwhile and attractive that people with the ability to do it will choose to do so. Over the years, a great deal of work has gone into discovering and helping women overcome the stumbling blocks that can impede progress toward science careers. In November, for example, Arizona State University (ASU) launched CareerWISE, an innovative Web site that provides interactive tools and resources as well as strategies and encouragement for women pursuing physical science Ph.D.s. Supported by the National Science Foundation and based on extensive research into women scientists' experiences, the site aims "to address ... instances where women experience discouragement," explains its originator, ASU counseling psychologist Bianca Bernstein. This online teaching resource is designed to "help women combat those ... experiences so that they feel that they can pursue their dreams and ... survive and thrive in the environments of Ph.D. programs and in their future careers."

The site's resilience-training program is crafted specifically for women, but it can help Ph.D. students of both genders "understand [themselves] when difficult things happen, learn to understand the situation and other people, and then strengthen skills to respond to those situations in an effective manner," Bernstein says. It combines written content with "herstories," which are "clips from videotaped interviews with Ph.D. women in science and engineering" that recount common problems and approaches useful for solving them.

Choosing science -- or not

Long before a woman faces the rigors of a Ph.D. program, she must opt to pursue a scientific career in the first place. Diekman's data suggest that many college students on the verge of setting a career direction see STEM careers as "inhibiting communal goals," the article states. Because more women than men favor that category of goals, "it is not surprising that even women talented in these areas might choose ... career paths" other than science. "Understanding communal motivations can provide unique information about why women opt out of STEM career paths."


Amanda Deikman (Credit: Meghan Olsen)

Diekman isn't sure why students hold those beliefs about scientific careers, which appear to dismiss science's immense contributions to human welfare and the fact that research can often be highly collaborative. The burgeoning effort to foster translational research, for example, strongly embodies both those features. "Part of it is likely the kind of images that are available in the culture," she speculates, such as "the lone scientist with the microscope or a computer and not with another person, whereas when you think about a doctor, you think about a doctor with a patient." The study examined only students' impressions and perceptions of various careers, she emphasizes, and not the lived experience of people who have chosen them. But because students must set an academic course long before they gain any such experience, their perceptions, right or wrong, play an enormous role in what they choose.

Nor does the belief that science conflicts with communal goals influence only women. "We argue that there [are] average sex differences" in the importance of communal goals "but that it's really the communal goals that matter" in whether one chooses science, Diekman says. Men who score high in valuing communal goals "show the same pattern" as women with that preference, opting for fields with a perceived communal component such as law, medicine, social work, or education.

Engineering that helps

The choice made by at least one group of scientifically able women appears to confirm this idea. A technical field with the explicit raison d'etre of helping people, biomedical engineering, arose in the past century as a partnership among medical researchers, clinicians, physical scientists, and engineers and has evolved into a separate discipline now taught at engineering schools across the country. The field aims "to improve health," according to the mission statement of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the newest institute in the National Institutes of Health. Founded in 2000, it is committed "to integrating the physical and engineering sciences with the life sciences to advance basic research and medical care."

This concrete and explicit intention to help -- rather than simply to advance knowledge or technology -- exerts a powerful draw for women students and makes biomedical engineering the most heavily female engineering specialty, according to engineering educators I've spoken with recently. The proportion of women at Johns Hopkins University, as at programs across the country, is "well in excess of 40% and sometimes close to 50%," says JHU engineering dean Nicholas Jones. Dean James Tien of the University of Miami in Florida concurs, adding that other engineering fields generally appear to have a "bad rap" with women students because they lack a "connotation of helping." Women earn less than one-fifth of bachelor's degrees in mechanical, electrical, and aerospace engineering and about one-third in chemical engineering.

Bioengineering chair Jennifer West of Rice University in Houston, Texas, says she has heard many women students say they want careers that help people. "All engineering disciplines" can do that, West notes, but the connection is "more apparent to students" in bioengineering. The past century's great advances in medical diagnosis and treatment -- including kidney dialysis, artificial body parts such as lenses and joints, magnetic resonance imaging, and genetic testing -- could have happened only with crucial contributions from physical scientists and engineers, who will also be needed for the next generation of health care miracles.

But this message -- that physical science, too, is a means of helping -- seems to have been missed by many young women with the ability to do the work. If those fields want to attract more women, they need to "make those opportunities to meet communal goals more apparent," Diekman says. Expanding the notion of the "helping professions" to include those that make discoveries and create technologies that increase human welfare may be a way to encourage more young women to join their ranks.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1000117