To find romance, women kiss science goodbye

Women who seek to be romantically desirable avoid science, technology, engineering and math studies, according to new research. Plus, the author's thoughts on the subject.

Want to be attractive, girls? Study something other than science.

A new University of Buffalo survey claims that women who seek to be romantically desirable willingly kiss science, math and other technical subjects goodbye.

“The findings from these studies show that women's romantic goal strivings, which can be triggered by environmental cues or by personal choice, have important implications for the gender gap in attitudes and interest in math and science,” the UB researchers write.

The UB scientists conducted their research through three surveys. In the first, they showed 350 college students -- male and female -- images associated with romance (restaurants, sunsets, candles) and intelligence (libraries, books, eyeglasses). In the second, they allowed the participants to overhear a conversation either about romance or intelligence; in a third they allowed participants to overhear a conversation either about romance or friendship.

After exposure to the cues, participants were asked to complete questionnaires that assessed their interest in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields versus others, as well as their preference for fields of study.

The researchers found that female participants exposed to cues related to romance reported less positive attitudes toward STEM fields of study compared to other disciplines. (This dip wasn't evident for participants who were exposed to intelligence or friendship related cues, nor for the men across all three surveys.

Then the researchers went further. Female participants of the third survey who were pursuing a degree in a STEM-related field were asked to answer questions using a personal digital assistant device every night for three weeks. The questions varied, ranging from attractiveness, likeability and desirability to daily course activities and intelligence aspirations.

What the researchers found was that when a female student was thinking about date-related activities, she didn't want to do her math homework. STEM fields were seen as more "masculine" pursuits, in contrast to more "feminine" arts and humanities fields.

The researchers say their results help to explain why women continue to be underrepresented in the upper ranks of STEM fields, despite having become the dominant gender of those students who pursue higher education.


As a woman who holds two chemical engineering degrees -- oh, and I write for a blog called "Science Scope" on a site full of female writers who are passionate about topics under the STEM umbrella -- I can't say I ever thought of it this way.

But as an American, it does make sense to me on a visceral level.

If I’m on a date, the last thing on my mind is solving a quadratic equation, of course. And it’s hard to feel desirable when your mind is lost in endless streams of numbers.

In truth, I fell in love with science before I ever had my first crush. As a kid, it helped me discover the world around me. It certainly helped that my dad was (and is) an engineer; I had him as a role model. Now, my job is to see science, up-close, in labs around the country and tell others about what I saw.

But back to romance. When you're a student at a cocktail party and people ask you what you do, the truth is that when you tell them you study chemical engineering, their eyes open up and their mouths drop -- as if they had seen a ghost.

I've had classmates who avoided the anguish by limiting their dating pool to people working in their lab. But now that I tell people I'm a science journalist, that seems more acceptable -- interesting, even.

Still, I’m convinced things are changing for scientists. Last year, there was a computer science Barbie doll; that certainly can't hurt the sex appeal. And a TED speaker like author Mary Roach -- a writer by trade, but the kind who wins things like Engineering Journalism Awards -- can attract half a million viewers for a talk about the history of scientific research into the orgasm.

And the numbers ought to appeal, too. According to data published in July by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration, women in STEM positions make 33 percent more than women in non-STEM related fields.

But there remains a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. Many people still harbor the stereotype of a scientist who is old, male and dressed in a white lab coat that matches his white hair.

Can science be sexy? Ask one of these well-known beauties if showing an interest in science has dampened their dating lives: actress Natalie Portman, Harvard alumna, published author in scientific journals, semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search; Friends actress Lisa Kudrow, Vassar alumna with a degree in biology; supermodel Cindy Crawford, winner of a scholarship to Northwestern University to study chemical engineering.

The list goes on.

The solution, I think, is simple: early exposure. Get young girls interested in science long before she's old enough to go out on a date.

Something needs to give. Our country’s economic future depends on it. If more women go into STEM-related fields, the nation benefits from future innovation.

To find love, you don't have to kiss science goodbye. You just have to make time for both.

Photo via Joshua L

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