Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Are women's career choices influenced by hormones in the womb?

The paucity of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) professions continues to cause concern and controversy. There are no doubt social reasons for the situation: in many cultures, girls are brought up with the expectation that they will eventually enter stereotypically "female" professions. A pertinent 2009 study by Brian Nosek and colleagues found that girls tend to perform worse on science tests in those countries where gender stereotypes are more strongly endorsed.

But that's not to say that biological factors don't also play a role. In a new study, Adriene Beltz and her team have studied males and females with congenital adrenal hyperplesia (CAH): a genetic condition, which for women involves exposure to higher-than-usual levels of testosterone and other androgens in the womb. The researchers say their results show that biological factors related to sex have a real influence on occupational interest, and that by acknowledging this, we'll be more successful in encouraging more women into science and maths careers.

Forty-six females with CAH; 21 of their unaffected sisters; 27 males with CAH; and 31 of their unaffected brothers (aged 9 to 26 years) all rated their interest in 61 jobs from astronomer to social worker.

Females with CAH are raised as girls and identify as girls, even though their genitalia may, to varying degrees, resemble that of a man. For psychologists interested in gender and career choice, the condition allows the usual sex and socialisation confound to be disentangled. Females with CAH, though treated by society largely like other girls, have been exposed to biological factors associated with the male sex.

The listed jobs were analysed according to how much they pertained to "things" or to "people". The unaffected male and female participants showed the divergence in interests that you'd expect, with the males on average showing more of a bias than females towards "things" jobs like mechanic or biologist than "people" jobs such as high school teacher or dancer. The key finding is that female participants with CAH also differed from unaffected female participants, rating jobs that pertain to "things" more favourably (whilst rating "people" jobs just the same as unaffected females). Moreover, the more androgen they were exposed to in the womb, based on their type of CAH and their genital development, the stronger their interest in thing-related jobs. Male participants with CAH did not answer differently from unaffected male participants.

"Our findings indicate that career choices are influenced by prenatal androgens through a psychological orientation to objects versus people that manifests in gender-typed occupational interests," the researchers said. They also acknowledged the large amount of within-sex variation in interests, and the role played by socio-cultural factors. "Our results are relevant to efforts to increase participation of girls and women in STEM careers. It is important to recognise that career choices have roots in early-developing and biologically-influenced interests. Girls and women might be encouraged to pursue STEM careers by focusing on the ways in which an orientation to people is compatible with those careers."

These conclusions chime with a 2006 study that tested the effects of a programme designed to teach girls about the altruistic value of science. The programme actually failed in this objective, but girls who believed in the altruistic value of science were found to be more interested in it, thus reinforcing the idea science could be made more appealing to women by highlighting its human importance.

ResearchBlogging.orgBeltz, A., Swanson, J., and Berenbaum, S. (2011). Gendered occupational interests: Prenatal androgen effects on psychological orientation to Things versus People. Hormones and Behavior, 60 (4), 313-317 DOI: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2011.06.002

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


Nora Miller said...

I would not presume to imply that hormones do not play a role in these results, but until we can sort out or account for the earliest effects of social gender indoctrination, it's hard to say what role they play. For example, you note that the CAH females are treated "largely like other girls", which sounds to me like they are treated somewhat differently. And their parents know they are different, and likely cannot avoid making distinctions. How much of all that is at play in these results?

I also struggle with the apparent lack of awareness of how early and how deeply society imposes gender bias on our children. Bias due to language and expectations is SO hard to distinguish from "actual" or biological differences.

It seems to me that this research has as much to do with a bias in how we describe and categorize jobs, as with how hormones affect us. STEM jobs include medicine, for example--what is more "people-oriented" than that? I worked for more than 30 years in the traditionally male domain of data processing, and spent most of it helping my male users understand how to use their computers. So it computer science a "people" job, or a "thing" job? Many women end up as cashiers, handling money--thing or people, or both?

The researchers suggest that "Girls and women might be encouraged to pursue STEM careers by focusing on the ways in which an orientation to people is compatible with those careers." Alternatively, perhaps we could work a little harder to reduce the bias barriers girls face in early education, when they get a clear message that it's okay if they don't like math, because that's a "thing" subject. Without these kinds of changes, it will forever be difficult to attribute gender differences in social choices to hormones rather than simple bias. In my opinion....

Nora Miller said...

One more comment--the tweet about this article uses the phrase "lack of interest in science and maths" while the article headline refers to "career choices". Two very different things! Lots of women might very well WANT to have a STEM job, but due to early career tracking and the resulting educational choices, they are blocked from the field. Not the same as not having an interest!

But then, you probably guessed this would stir up a few comments, right?

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