In our research projects, we focus on lifestyle choices in the form of life goals and on social pressures in the form of gender roles. Life goals include long term goals and values related to work (e.g., satisfaction, making money), but also include those related to marriage, family, social impact (helping others, making a difference in the world), and many others. Ferriman et al. (2009) note that this is one of the least studied areas in this field, yet it may account for some of the most pervasive gender differences observed in STEM occupations.
Indeed, we have found only a handful of studies that have systematically assessed life goals in college students and even fewer that have investigated how the importance that students place on specific life goals affects majors or careers. This is unfortunate because significant life events related to life goals, primarily starting a family, have been identified as critical determinants of women’s investment and continuation in STEM careers (Ceci et al., 2009); yet we know little about how women envisioned these life course events just a few years earlier in college. Thus our goal is to systematically investigate the differences in life goals for male and female college students with different occupation interests, focusing on students with the academic preparation for majoring in a STEM field. We have examined these processes in two large studies.
Choosing Careers in Science and Math: An Integrated Approach
In this study, we systematically examine the relative importance of social-contextual, person-attributes, and life goals in career choices during four key educational transition points: Transition from grade school to middle school, transition from middle school to high school, at the end of high school, and at the start of college. Existing classroom programs are then mapped on to the research findings to identify strategies for promoting interest in STEM careers that are likely to be most effective at different points in education.
Life Goals, Gender Roles, and STEM Career Interest
In this study, we explore these factors further in a longitudinal study with college students. We ask students to complete surveys at three timepoints during their college career (approximately one year apart). We specifically examine: a) multiple aspects of communal goals, including marriage, family, and helping; b) investigate the impact of romantic relationship goals and the gender roles that accompany them in predicting women’s STEM interest; and c) examine how Biology majors, where women are more represented, compare to other STEM majors with respect to life goals and gender roles.