A new study provides a sure-to-be-controversial explanation for why women are less likely than men to pursue careers in science and engineering: exposure to male sex hormones in utero appears linked to a later interest in "things" rather than people.
According to Psych Central, researchers compared young people with congenital adrenal hyperplasia to their peers without. People with CAH are genetically female but have been exposed to more androgen in the womb than women without the condition. The scientists found that girls and young women with CAH were more interested in careers related to "things" — such as engineering or surgery — than their were non-CAH counterparts. Non-CAH women, meanwhile, were more interested in people-related fields like teaching and social work. Said study author Adriene Beltz,
We found there is a biological influence on that interest toward things, so maybe women aren't going into STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] careers because what they're interested in — people — isn't consistent with an interest in STEM careers.
Gender discrimination is obviously another possible reason for women's underrepresentation in STEM careers, but that's outside the scope of this study. Beltz did note that it's not necessarily true that science and engineering are all about "things" — she says, "Maybe we could show females ways in which an interest in people is compatible with STEM careers." Many careers involve interaction with both things and people, and sometimes it's hard to separate the two — for instance, is a heart valve really a "thing?" On the other hand, it's interesting to find that hormones in the womb can affect career choices. We shouldn't use this information to conclude that women — at least those without CAH — should stick to supposedly people-focused careers, or that we shouldn't be striving for gender parity within STEM fields. Rather, we should take this study for what it is — a clue to one way in which womb environment may affect the brain. Such clues can be valuable as long as we don't misinterpret them as rules, or foundations for social policy.
Career Choice Influenced By Sex Hormones [Pysch Central]
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