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After viewing romantic images like this one, women reported less interest in science careers.

When women focus on romantic goals, they become less interested in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math, according to a study in the September issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Educators have long noted the imbalance in the numbers of undergraduate men and women who take STEM courses. With this research, study author Lora E. Park, PhD, a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo, set out to untangle some of the personal and cultural pressures that may be responsible for the disparity.

In a series of studies, Park and her colleagues showed male and female undergraduates images related to romantic goals, including pictures of a beach sunset and candles, or intelligence goals — a pair of eyeglasses and a library, for example. The students then completed questionnaires about their interest in STEM fields versus other academic fields, such as art and literature.

Park found that women who had looked at the romantic cues reported fewer positive attitudes toward and less interest in STEM fields than those shown the intellectual cues, while men's attitudes were unaffected.

A second series of studies using overheard conversations showed similar findings: Women who eavesdropped on a conversation about a romantic date were less likely to report interest in STEM than women who had listened in on a conversation about a meeting with a friend or taking a test. Men's attitudes toward STEM were unchanged regardless of which conversations they heard.

Park posits that women may distance themselves from STEM when they wish to be romantically desirable because pursuing traditionally masculine domains like science and math conflicts with their desire to be perceived as feminine and therefore attractive.

In light of these findings, female graduate students in psychology and other STEM fields should be aware of what cultural pressures may cause them to do the same.

—S. Kumar