The lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and math is often lamented, but it's still unclear why a gender gap exists in those fields. Now researchers say the problem might be that when a woman's thoughts turn to romance, they also turn away from the sciences.

In series of studies partially funded by the National Science Foundation, researchers set out to find why women are underrepresented in these fields, which are abbreviated as STEM. According to Futurity, the research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that when women concentrate on romantic goals, whether due to environment or personal choice, they demonstrate less interest in STEM and more interest in fields traditionally thought of as feminine, like arts, languages, and English. Yet, the same is not true for men.

In several studies of more than 350 subjects, men and women were exposed to images or conversations that prompted them to think about different types of goals. From Futurity:

In Study 1, participants viewed images related to romantic goals (e.g., images of romantic restaurants, beach sunsets, candles) or intelligence goals (e.g., images of libraries, books, eyeglasses).

Participants in Study 2a overheard a conversation about a recent date that someone had gone on (romantic goal condition) or a test that someone had taken (intelligence goal condition). In Study 2b, they overheard a conversation about a romantic date (romantic goal) or about a recent visit from a friend from out of town (friendship goal).

After exposure to the romantic, intelligence or friendship goal cues, participants completed questionnaires assessing their interest in STEM vs. other fields and their preference for various academic majors.


In the questionnaires, women who had been exposed to romantic cues reported more negative views of STEM fields and less interest in pursuing them. This didn't happen when the women were prompted to think about friendship or intelligence.

In a third study, women who had already decided to pursue a degree or career in STEM fields were asked to report on their daily goals related to romance and intelligence for 21 days (for example, contacting someone they're interested in or doing math homework). When the women pursued romantic goals, they participated in fewer math and science activities not just on that day, but on the following day as well.


While these findings can (and probably will) be twisted to suggest that women are too focused on finding a husband and pumping out babies to succeed in serious, science-related subjects, the researchers say the problem is actually how we're socialized. Girls aren't born sharing Barbie's opinion that "Math class is tough." (Though, to be fair to Barbie, party dresses are fun.) Lead author Lora Park says:

"Gender scripts discourage women from appearing intelligent in masculine domains, like STEM, and in fact, studies show that women who deviate from traditional gender norms, such as succeeding in male-typed jobs, experience backlash for violating societal expectations. On the other hand, men in gender-incongruent occupations don't experience the same degree of backlash as women do."


It seems that despite strides made by Dr. Dana Scully and the ladies of Star Trek (though, quite a few of them stuck to communications and detecting others' emotions) young women are still internalizing the idea that pursuing careers in science isn't feminine and makes them less romantically desirable. There are other barriers to women entering STEM fields, but society valuing girls more for being attractive rather than intelligent (and acting like the two are mutually exclusive) clearly isn't helping.

Sex Appeal: Women Kiss Science Goodbye [Futurity]

Image via Diego Cervo/Shutterstock.