Gender, schooling, and career choice

The NY Times reports on research into differing schooling experiences (and resulting career choices) among adolescent boys and girls:

…Women with physics degrees go on to doctorates, teaching jobs and tenure at the same rate that men do. The gender gap [in academia] is a result of earlier decisions. While girls make up nearly half of high school physics students, they’re less likely than boys to take Advanced Placement courses or go on to a college degree in physics.

These numbers don’t surprise two psychologists at Vanderbilt University, David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow, who have been tracking more than 5,000 mathematically gifted students for 35 years.

They found that starting at age 12, the girls tended to be better rounded than the boys: they had relatively strong verbal skills in addition to math, and they showed more interest in “organic” subjects involving people and other living things. Despite their mathematical prowess, they were less likely than boys to go into physics or engineering.

But whether they grew up to be biologists or sociologists or lawyers, when they were surveyed in their 30s, these women were as content with their careers as their male counterparts. They also made as much money per hour of work. Dr. Lubinski and Dr. Benbow concluded that adolescents’ interests and balance of abilities — not their sex — were the best predictors of whether they would choose an “inorganic” career like physics.

A similar conclusion comes from a new study of the large gender gap in the computer industry by Joshua Rosenbloom and Ronald Ash of the University of Kansas. By administering vocational psychological tests, the researchers found that information technology workers especially enjoyed manipulating objects and machines, whereas workers in other occupations preferred dealing with people.

Once the researchers controlled for that personality variable, the gender gap shrank to statistical insignificance: women who preferred tinkering with inanimate objects were about as likely to go into computer careers as were men with similar personalities. There just happened to be fewer women than men with those preferences.


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