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Study: Gender Norms Still Matter in Women’s Choice of College Major

Barbie has traded her swimsuit for a scientist’s jacket, Hollywood revealed that the Hidden Figures who helped put men on the moon were women, and more women work in jobs formerly dominated by men.
gender norms
Inbal Marilli/Unsplash

But when it comes to women’s choice of college major, traditional gender norms about femininity still matter, according to new research.

The study — by Ann Beutel and colleagues at the University of Oklahoma and published in Springer’s journal Gender Issues — shows that feminine norms steer women away from college majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or doctoral track-medicine (pre-medicine).

The 8 Feminine Norms

The 657 female undergraduate participants answered a survey measuring to what degree women conform to eight dominant feminine norms held in high esteem in American culture: being relationship-orientated, caring for children, thinness, sexual fidelity, modesty, being domestic and physical appearance.

While women who identified themselves as adhering to feminine norms were less likely to choose STEM or pre-med jobs, women who aligned more to the norm of caring for children generally chose majors in social sciences, education and social services.

“In sum,” the study reads, “although women’s participation in higher education has increased, persistent gender stratification in college majors contributes to gender stratification in the contemporary labor market, with women generally faring worse than men in terms of employment and earnings.”

As a whole, women continue to be overrepresented in lower-paying occupations, according to the Pew Research Center.

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Major Choice Can Lead to Lower-Paying Jobs

Because culture, media and literature emphasize women’s role in caregiving, for example, they also affect women’s preference, the paper argues. And that can cause women to choose majors that would lead to jobs that would allow them to care for a family, according to the study.

The authors are careful to note that the data can point only to associations, not causal relationships.

Still, the research is among some of the latest to examine the gender pay gap by looking beyond the gap itself and examining women’s or girls’ early choices. Collectively, the findings challenge the argument commonly used by some to explain women’s lower pay: that it’s due to women’s choice to leave the workforce to have children.

One survey, commissioned by Microsoft, found that young girls in Europe become interested in STEM subjects around the age of 11 and then lose interest at the age of 15. The psychology professor who helped coordinate the survey of 11,500 girls said conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles and lack of role models push girls’ career choices away from STEM fields.

The findings challenge the argument commonly used to explain women’s lower pay: that it’s due to women’s choice.Click To Tweet

Even in Same Major, Women Earn Less

The greater examination of how women’s choice of major influences their long-term pay plight has revealed other inequity. The Harvard Business Review recently reported on data that shows that even when women and men study the same subject, women sort into lower-paying jobs when they get out of school.

PayScale’s data show that women earn just 76 cents for every dollar earned by men, when comparing median salaries of all workers. Learn the whole truth about women, work and pay equity in PayScale’s report, Inside the Gender Pay Gap.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think societal gender norms influenced your choice of major? We want to hear your story. Share in the comments, or join the conversation on Twitter.


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