Women and Science: Are Career Preferences Really Created in the Womb?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Sept. 6 2011 2:00 PM

Women and Science: Are Career Preferences Really Created in the Womb?

2199386
Photo by PEDRO ARMESTRE/AFP/Getty Images

Still trying to figure out what to be when you grow up? According to psychologists at Penn State University, the answer to that question was determined in part while you were still in the womb.

Psych professor Sheri A. Berenbaum and her team recently published the results of a study in which they claim that a person’s exposure to certain sex hormones in utero strongly predicts career choices made later in life. Specifically, Berenbaum thinks she’s figured out why girls don’t like science: "...maybe women aren’t going into [Science, Technology, Engineering or Math] careers because what they’re interested in—people—isn’t consistent with an interest in STEM careers."

Advertisement

This assumption—that women like working with "people" (as teachers, etc.) while men like working with "things" (as scientists, etc.)—is the core of this experiment’s design, and unfortunately, it’s rotten. Before I get to that, though, a word on the study’s methodology. In order to test the effects of hormones, the researchers studied female and male teenage and young adults who had congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH)—a genetic condition that results from being exposed to an excess of the male sex hormone androgen while in utero—in comparison to their non-CAH siblings. According to this and previous studies’ findings, women with CAH tend to have interests “similar to stereotypically male ones.”

While the researchers attribute this tendency to what amounts to a chemical effect, it seems odd to totally exclude the possibility that gendered preferences for careers might just be the product of a society built on strongly gendered expectations. And moreover, the “nurture-over-nature” point is arguably even more crucial when dealing with CAH subjects: It’s likely that women who exhibit more biologically masculine characteristics (while remaining genetically female) from a young age might be treated as such (to some degree), or, conversely, rebel against the “feminine” constraints they were forced to live in during their childhood. It’s just too complicated to attribute a thing as slippery and contingent as “stereotypical male [or female]” tendencies to biology.

Like that horrible test they give you in high school that categorizes you as “artistic” or “investigative” (and a version of which, incidentally, was used as the rating questionnaire in the Penn State study), this kind of science deals in simplistic categories and even baser assumptions, ignoring the messy complexity of real human beings. To be sure, women are underrepresented in the STEM fields, but the remedy will not be found by treating them more like things than people.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer

Foreigners

Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.

Technology

Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
  Life
Outward
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 23 2014 5:42 PM Seriously, Evolution: WTF? Why I love the most awkward, absurd, hacked-together species.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.