Do Romantic Thoughts Reduce Women's Interest in Engineering?

A new study suggests thoughts of romance can reduce college women's interest in science and engineering

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for

IEEE Spectrum

’s “Techwise Conversations.”

In the 1960s, when women first began enrolling at universities in record numbers, many people wondered: “Why weren’t more of them studying engineering?” Fifty years later, we’re still wondering. Only one in seven U.S. engineers is a woman. The so-called engineering gender gap is still a chasm.

And that’s not likely to change very quickly. The average college graduate nowadays is a woman (57 percent to 43), but when it comes to the so-called STEM degrees—that’s science, technology, engineering, and math—women account for only 35 percent. And most of those are for life and physical sciences, not engineering or computer science.

It’s a problem perhaps best examined by psychologists, and examine it they are. And a new series of studies argues that—as clichéd as it sounds—maybe love really does have something to do with it. An article based on the studies will be published next month in the peer-reviewed journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

My guest today is the paper’s lead author. Lora Park is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, in New York, and principal investigator at the Self and Motivation Lab there. She joins us by phone.

Lora, welcome to the podcast.

Lora Park: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

Steven Cherry: Lora, you set up three separate experiments to look at the link between thinking about romance and thinking about the STEM subjects.

Lora Park: In the first study we wanted to look at how exposure to images related to romantic goals could affect women’s and men’s interest in the STEM fields versus other fields. And just to give you a little bit of theory behind the research before I jump into the experiments, we theorized or we thought that women—but not men—might experience conflict between wanting to be intelligent in these stereotypically masculine fields of STEM and wanting to be romantically desirable. So it’s not about just women have a conflict between being smart and being desirable, but it’s really expressing intelligence and interest in these masculine fields. And when I say “masculine,” there’s a lot of research in psychology suggesting that both men and women typically associate STEM fields with being male and masculine and the arts and humanities with being female and feminine. So, drawing upon the past research, we thought that women but not men might experience this conflict. And so in the first study, we exposed women and men to images; these were participants, mostly freshmen from introductory psychology courses. About half said that they were interested in actually pursuing a degree or career in STEM fields; the other half didn’t, and they’re primarily 18- to 19-year-old students. So they came into the lab, and we seated them in cubicles, and they looked on the computer screen at images. And they were randomly assigned to either look at images associated with romantic-related goals—so, pictures of romantic restaurants or beach sunsets, candles, things like that—or nonromantic-related goals. And in this case, our control condition was goals that were related to just intelligence in general, not specific to science but just in general—so, like pictures of a library or a classroom or books, things like that. So in this first study after they were exposed to those images, they completed some questionnaires. And the most important questions we were interested in is how interested were they in the STEM fields; how much did they prefer to major in these fields compared to other fields. And what we found consistent with our hypotheses was that when women but not men had seen these romantic images, they reported significantly less interest in the STEM fields. Men weren’t affected either way; they didn’t show more or less interest depending on whether they saw the romantic images or the intelligence images. But it was really the women who showed a shift in response to the images. So the next two studies—which were studies 2A and 2B—we were interested in, well, what are other ways in which romantic goals could be activated in everyday life? So in addition to seeing things, you might think of your other senses; you could overhear a conversation about something. We were trying to think of everyday experiences that people might have, and how often have we waited in line somewhere or sat on a bus somewhere and we kind of overhear somebody else’s conversation. And there’s research in social psychology suggesting that there’s this process of “goal contagions,” that when you perceive other people pursuing goals, you automatically tend to adopt those goal pursuits in yourself, sometimes without your even conscious awareness. So, adopting this idea of goal contagion, we thought maybe overhearing somebody’s conversation related to pursuing romantic goals, or pursuing intelligence goals, or another control condition, pursuing friendship related goals in general, we wanted to see what the effects of that would be on women’s interest and also men’s interest. We wanted to see if we could replicate the findings of study one. We found that women, when they overheard that romantic conversation, they again showed significantly less interest—reported less interest in the STEM fields compared to if they had overheard the conversation about the test that somebody had taken or the friendship-related conversation. Men—again, they didn’t show different responses based on what they had overheard. What’s interesting in this conversation study is that a lot of participants at the end of the study, we asked them, “Do you remember what the conversation was about?” and a lot of them actually reported not remembering what the conversation was about. So in the final study, we wanted to look at this not just in the lab but trying to capture in people’s everyday lives what might this pursuit of romantic goals look like and how might that affect something like their actual involvement or investment in their activities related to a STEM field. So we focused on math, and we recruited in this study—the last study—we recruited 54 women who were enrolled in a math course at the University of Buffalo. And they were all women who said they were interested in pursuing a degree or career in STEM. They received a PDA device. So for each night for 21 days, every night, they had to fill out a questionnaire on their PDA where they reported how much they were trying to be romantically desirable that day on a 7-point scale, how much they were trying to be intelligent that day, although intelligence—remember, we weren’t specifically asking how intelligent do you want to be in math; we just used it as a control condition like the other studies, so it wasn’t specified what type of intelligence, just how intelligent did you want to be. We also asked them to check off which activities they participated in that day, and they were grouped into romantic-related activities. So what we found is that on days when women were striving to be romantically desirable and they said they were trying to appear this way, to be this way, they did feel more desirable—which is what we would expect—and they also spent more time in romantic activities, but they reported less involvement in their math class activities.

Steven Cherry: So the third study didn’t also study the question of whether men had this shift as well, but the first two studies did?

Lora Park: Right.

Steven Cherry: Now the first study seems to rely on a pretty simplistic picture of cognition, right? I mean, sort of, candles for romance and books for scholarship, that sort of thing. Do you consider that a weakness?

Lora Park: Well, I think it actually was a little bit surprising, because even exposure to these, what might seem like very mundane images, showed very strong effects on women’s interest. And so I think that it’s actually a strength that the research is showing that even with such subtle manipulations as seeing a fleeting image can still shift women’s attitudes and interests […] suggests that it could be a pretty powerful effect. If you think about the cumulative impact of these kinds of images that people see in everyday life, a one-time lab exercise or experimental manipulation showing this effect is pretty neat.

Steven Cherry: Now, I’m wondering—it sounds like you’ve only studied the sort of short-term effects here. I might go on a date instead of studying my calculus for another hour, but that’s very different from changing my major.

Lora Park: Yeah, that’s a good point. So two things: One is that in that last study, the daily diary study, we looked at cross-day effects. So not only does today if I’m trying to be romantically desirable do I show less investment in my math class activities today, but there is carryover effects. So the more I was trying to be romantically desirable today, the more desirable I feel both today and tomorrow and the less likely I am to engage in my math activities, you know, the next day. So even though this was just a 21-day study, a slice of, you know, somebody’s life, it suggests that there could be potentially cumulative effects of pursuing these goals. I think an area for future research that we’re really interested in going is to look at these more long-term effects.

Steven Cherry: You know, it seems like romance is a pretty complicated thing, especially for college-age individuals. I’m wondering if maybe interest in technical fields decreased when women were involved with men who weren’t in a technical field, but maybe it might have even increased when they were involved with someone who did have a STEM major. Maybe that’s the effect that you’re seeing.

Lora Park: Yeah, that’s very interesting. I think it’s possible. I think it depends on—so we were conceptualizing these romantic goals as self-presentational goals, so the image that one wants to create in the minds of others. And you’re right, that if the target person that you’re trying to impress or attract is somebody who really values or prefers a woman who’s smart in these fields, then you could see that shifting. I think the findings of this research has a broad statement about what effects are possible, but I think even among women it’s important to realize that there’s probably a lot of individual differences. So actually one of the sets of studies we’re doing now is to look at, okay, we found this effect for women in general, but I’m sure there’s probably certain beliefs or attitudes that women might have that could moderate or kind of influence their susceptibility to these effects.

Steven Cherry: In the meantime your study seems to be getting blogged and tweeted quite a bit. Are you concerned that the results seem to kind of play into the stereotypes of women that reinforce the idea that—that they don’t belong in technical disciplines?

Lora Park: Yeah, I was actually a little bit surprised. I think I was very focused on looking at this phenomenon, and I think it’s good that it’s generating a lot of debate. Because I think, yes, in some ways it’s consistent with stereotypes that people might have. But I’m not trying to perpetuate stereotypes, because it’s not about women playing dumb or dumbing themselves down to get a guy. It’s not that simplistic; it’s really about the potential conflict that women might experience in being intelligent or smart in these particular fields. And it’s not really other fields, but it’s in these stereotypically masculine fields that could interfere with their academic interests when they’re thinking about romantic goals. So I think it’s a lot more nuanced, but I think once the findings come out people tend to jump to the conclusion of, “Well, this just shows what we already know,” and then that gets perpetuated a lot. So I think it’s really important for people to, one, if they disagree with the findings—which people are always able to express their opinion about everything—but if you read the study, read the article carefully, you can see that we never say anything about, you know, “women play dumb” or you know, “men don’t like women who are smart.”

Steven Cherry: Your research is funded in part by the National Science Foundation, and I guess that’s in part because they’re concerned with the gender gap in engineering and science. Do you have any advice for educators who want to attract more women to technical fields or maybe for parents who are concerned that they’d like their daughters to stay the course in a technical study?

Lora Park: I think one of the important things for parents is if they are raising daughters, there’s a lot of research showing that there’s these societal messages that girls are exposed to from a very young age through, you know, their peers, and magazines, and TV shows, and movies, and just the stories they hear from a very young age about the importance of being attractive and of being romantically desirable and appealing. So that’s a very strong message that girls get from a very young age. I mean, look at Barbie dolls and just so much emphasis on that. And attractiveness and being romantically desirable—I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; it is an important part of developing a sense of self, you know, finding a romantic partner, developing one’s identity, that could all play a role into that. But I think as parents, knowing that society’s going to give that message to your child regardless, so I think as educators and parents it’s really important to role model, especially if you are female, because research suggests that same-sex role models play a very impactful role.

Steven Cherry: Well, thanks. It sounds like these studies are really a lot more nuanced than they’re being characterized, so thanks for taking us through them.

Lora Park: Thank you so much.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with University of Buffalo psychologist Lora Park about whether college women are choosing between romance and science and engineering. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 24 August 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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