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Life Goals, Gender Roles, and STEM Career Interest

We are a team of interdisciplinary researchers who are interested in exploring and understanding factors that impact an individual’s pursuit of STEM careers. College women may abandon STEM majors at a greater rate than men because they believe that the pursuit of a STEM career conflicts with achieving other life goals. Few studies have investigated how the importance placed on specific life goals affects college major or career choices.  We view changes in gender roles and life goals through the framework of “emerging adulthood” and expect changes in life goals to be systematically related to changes in college majors and career interest.

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.