The XX Factor

Women May Be Underrepresented in STEM Because They’re Too Concerned With Grades

Give it a rest.

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Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin wanted to know why only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics in the United States are awarded to women. So she started studying the academic records of students at one anonymous research institute and found that women who receive A’s in an introductory economics course were actually more likely than men with A’s to go on to choose economics as their major. But women who received poorer grades were much less likely to pursue the major than men were. Starting at the A-minus level, women jump ship to other majors, but men stick around. Men who receive B’s are just as likely as male A students to elect an econ major, but female A students are twice as likely as B students to major in econ. By the time you reach the C students, men are about four times as likely as women to major in the discipline.

Women: Could you be leaning in in the wrong direction? At the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell says the study shows that women need to “change their myopic attitudes about the significance of grades” in order to set themselves up for greater chances of success in the workplace. “Maybe women just don’t want to get things wrong,” Goldin told Rampell. “They don’t want to walk around being a B-minus student in something. They want to find something they can be an A student in. They want something where the professor will pat them on the back and say ‘You’re doing so well!’” Men, meanwhile, “don’t seem to give two damns.”

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells the story of how, at Harvard Business School, she hid her astronomical GPA from classmates because she didn’t want to be dismissed as bossy just for being a woman at the top of her class. But it seems like the strongest social pressure affecting college-educated, professional women today isn’t that they’re afraid to succeed; it’s that they’re afraid not to. Women are such overachievers that our obsession with success constitutes a “secret crisis.” We have our own children’s book, The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes, to help us learn to let go of our perfectionism.* Perhaps we focus so much on excelling at school because it’s one place where we’ve seen our hard work actually get results. American women get higher grades than men at each stage of schooling and have for years. Since 1982, we’ve earned 10 million more college degrees than men have. It’s clear that higher education is an environment that encourages female success, whether or not our professors give us a patronizing pats on the back.

But when we look past graduation and begin to weigh our prospects in high-earning fields like business and technology, female success appears far less likely. When we see that few women have managed to rise to the upper ranks (and when we read books like Lean In confirming our assumptions), we reason that women need to work harder than their male peers to get ahead in these fields. Perhaps a B-student won’t be able to cut it. (This is not just in our heads: The latest depressing study on this point shows that investors prefer to fund entrepreneurial ideas pitched by men, particularly handsome ones.) Furthering our education looks like a more reliable way to increase our earning potential: Women who earn a bachelor’s degree earn as much money as men who don’t graduate. If we get a doctorate, we can even earn as much as a man with just a B.A.

Focusing too hard on grades is a myopic concern, but it’s not necessarily an irrational one. I bet that women are interested in excelling at school because they know they can, and I bet they’d do the same in STEM fields if the jobs presented them similar prospects for success.

Correction, March 11, 2014: This post originally misstated the title of the book The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes.