Researchers at the University of Oklahoma released a study showing that, for female college students, choosing a major is often related to the degree to which one adheres to societal standards of femininity. The findings indicate that cultural gender norms continue to serve as a barrier to “increased gender integration of academic fields of study … in spite of increases in gender egalitarian ideology and women’s educational attainment,” Ann Beutel, one of the study’s authors, told Science Daily.
The report, titled Femininity and Choice of College Major, reveals correlations between a woman’s adherence to gender norms, such as domesticity and investment in physical appearance, and the likelihood of her majoring in the traditionally female-dominated fields of education, social sciences, and social services. Conversely, women who ranked low in conformity to gender norms were most likely to major in the arts and humanities, business, communications and journalism, and perhaps most notably, the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
To complete the study, researchers used the Conformity to Feminine Norms Inventory to survey 1,100 female undergraduates at an unnamed American university; the inventory is an assessment tool typically used in psychology to measure the degree to which a woman adheres to societal expectations for her gender, such as caring for children and prioritizing romantic relationships. Controlling for factors like ethnicity, race, and year in school, the results of the report were consistent across specific fields of study. However, one deviation found that women who ranked high in domesticity were actually more likely to major in STEM, including choosing to pursue doctoral-track medicine. Another variation indicated that respondents majoring in the arts and humanities were the most likely to adhere to the feminine characteristic of “niceness in relationships,” despite ranking low in adherence to all other gender norms.
The study was designed to help educators and sociologists better determine the causes of persistent gender disparities in certain areas of academia, with a particular focus on increasing female representation in STEM. The researchers stressed in the report that their findings do not point to the causes of conformity to gender norms or college major choice, only to correlations between the two.