Researchers seeking to explain why women are less likely than men to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers long focused on females' purported inferior mathematical prowess. But new research suggests a very different explanation: women's superior abilities in other areas.

In "Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," published in Psychological Science, psychologists Ming-Te Wang, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, and Sarah Kenny of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania argue that women who are fully capable of doing STEM work have broader career options than those available to men because their verbal abilities are superior, on average. Those women, the study's authors suggest, often take other opportunities, which they apparently find more attractive. (As Science Careers has repeatedly reported, much research finds that many scientifically able women act on values that are different from the majority of people who choose STEM careers.)

Studying 1490 people who had participated in a longitudinal study, the researchers found that "mathematically capable individuals who also had high verbal skills were less likely to pursue STEM careers than were individuals who had high math skills but moderate verbal skills." They emphasize this "notable" fact: "[T]he group with high math and high verbal ability included more females than males."

The people who ended up in STEM fields tended to have "high math and moderate verbal abilities. Thus, math may play a more integral role in these individuals' sense of identity, drawing them toward STEM occupations," according to a press release from the Association for Psychological Science, which publishes the journal.

Instead of working to improve women's mathematical abilities, Wang suggests in the press release, the secret to bringing more women into STEM fields may lie in making those fields more attractive to multitalented individuals.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300052