May 26, 2003 ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Girls and boys who are confident in their math abilities tend to pick a science career based on their values more than on their skills, a study by two University of Michigan researchers suggests. The study found that both boys and girls who were people-oriented tended to choose college majors in the biological sciences---medicine, environmental sciences or social sciences---rather than the mathematically based sciences such as engineering, physics, or astronomy. It also found that math self-confidence, while stronger in boys than girls, played a much smaller role in the choice of college majors and careers than previously thought.
The study, by Jacquelynne Eccles, a professor of psychology and women's studies and a research scientist in the University's Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG), and Mina Vida, a research associate in IRWG, is based on a data set collected over 17 years as part of the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions (MSALT). MSALT follows some 1,700 southeastern Michigan students from 6th grade through college and beyond, looking at a wide variety of interests, motivation and achievement-related self-concepts.
"Girls do tend to underestimate their math ability in high school, even though their actual performance is just as good as that of the boys. But that's not what pushes them away from mathematically based majors," Eccles said. "There are two key factors in that decision: how much they believe in the ultimate utility of mathematics, and how much they value working with and for people."
Boys in the survey tended to rank the utility of mathematics more highly, while girls placed a higher value on English. In addition, girls were more likely to be people-oriented. "Given this data, it's not surprising that there are many more men than women in math-based majors and careers," Eccles said. "Boys' beliefs and values are pulling them toward those areas while girls' are pushing them in other directions."
Eccles points out that women are going into science, but they tend to concentrate in the life and social sciences. For instance, in 1997, 63 percent of psychologists and 42 percent of biologists were women, compared with 10 percent of physicists and astronomers and 9 percent of engineers. In 2002, women made up 43 percent of the incoming U-M Medical School class, but were just 14 percent of doctoral students in the College of Engineering.
Eccles and Vida's research suggests that those who want to attract and retain more women in math-based academic programs and careers in industry need to develop different intervention programs for girls and young women. "It's not enough to simply try to raise girls' confidence levels," Eccles said. "We need to develop interventions that will not only demonstrate the utility of mathematics, but also show how the mathematically based sciences do something concrete to help people."
She says U-M's GO-GIRL program for seventh-grade girls is a good example. Students in GO-GIRL design questionnaires on topics of their own choosing and conduct surveys via the school's Smartgirl.org website. They learn how to analyze and present the data they collect. "By demonstrating a strong connection between math and the things that concern them in their daily lives, GO-GIRL increases the chances that these girls will continue their interest in math and the mathematical sciences," Eccles said.
By contrast, attempts that focus simply on improving girls' self concept when it comes to math are likely to have a lesser impact, because they do not address the real factors that push girls away from math.
The study also has implications for universities and industry. "Both undergraduate and graduate programs in engineering and the mathematical sciences will need to take a hard look at their curriculums if they want to increase the number of women," Eccles said. "It's not enough to concentrate solely on abstract mathematics. Women (and more people-oriented men) need to be able to make the link to wider societal values.
"For example, a professor teaching students how to design a bridge can make it a purely mathematical exercise, or use mathematics as a tool to create a bridge that will meet the needs of a given community. Most civil engineering programs will stress the mathematics but not the wider picture," she explained.
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