The XX Factor

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

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.”

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.