Women, romantic goals and science: The evidence just isn’t there

One of the first things that came across my Twitter feed yesterday morning was a press release announcing that “Women’s Quest for Romance Conflicts with Scientific Pursuits, Study Finds”.  I’m usually pretty sceptical of press releases, especially ones that include the words “study finds.” This one, instead of eliciting mild annoyance though, made me feel nauseous. Women’s quest for romance? Really? At first glance, it sounded more like something out of Mad Men than a real study.

I’m going to put my bias right out there. I am passionate about engaging people in science and, as a result, also intrigued by what keeps them from participating. I began my academic career with the explicit purpose of exploring gender issues in science education (and I have the embarrassingly naive grad school entrance essays to prove it). A year into my master’s research, I became increasingly frustrated with research that sought to categorize women and girls and definitively assign them characteristics that interfere with their interest in science. Through my own classroom teaching experiences I was well aware of the diversity of strengths, weaknesses, desires and goals that both female and male students bring to the science classroom. Essentialist gender research not only covers up this diversity, it also misses male students, many of whom are also discouraged and excluded in science. This is why I study inclusion and exclusion in science through a lens of identity – looking at patterns in the ways that individuals define themselves (including in relation to masculine and feminine gender norms) and how these definitions come together to influence the decisions that male and female students make about studying science. All that is to say, that I am generally not inclined towards approaches that homogenize women and men but at the same time am open to the important influences of stereotypes and societal expectations that can have particular influences on science participation.

So while my first thought was “ugh”, I was willing to look openly at the data to see what they’d found. It only seems fair to tell you all of that up front. So I tracked down the full study to investigate further.

The paper announced in the press release (Park, Young, Troisi & Pinkus, 2011) is based on three consecutive small studies done to explore the connections between romantic goals and science interest. The authors explain the prevalence of gender stereotypes in Western society and how girls are typically socialized to act in gender-typical ways in (presumably heterosexual) romantic situations. They also note that women who act in ways that break gender norms tend to be viewed negatively by others. The assumption is that having an interest in science is viewed as a masculine characteristic and therefore something that women will downplay in romantic situations and when they are pursuing romantic goals.

There are many (many!) unsupported assumptions built into this logic. The most obvious issue is that scientific disciplines are not nearly equal in their association with masculinity. The authors do not make a note of this but in their questionnaire they only list those areas with significant under-representation of women (“Computer Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Chemistry, Physics, etc.” p. 3). So already, this isn’t a study about science but about particularly masculine identified areas in science. Good to know. (And actually it’s more complicated than that because different areas of engineering vary widely in gender representation and in association with masculinity and femininity)

Study 1

The first study examined two possible goals types: wanting to be intelligent and wanting to be romantically desirable. They primed the participants (all university psychology students) to think about one or the other goal type by showing them images. They prompted intelligence goals by showing participants images of books, libraries and eyeglasses (eyeglasses? That just makes me think about going to the optometrist, but okay) and romantic goals by showing them pictures of sunsets, candles and restaurants. The authors checked these images with a follow-up study to be sure that they primed the right goals (and not, say, goals of going to the optometrist) and the men and women that they asked responded that the images made them want to be intelligent or romantic in the expected ways. The main study then brought 119 students (approximately balanced between women and men and with approximately equal interest in science) into the lab. The participants were asked to rate their interest in science and in pursuing a science-related major. They then looked at one set of images (either romantic or intelligent) and answered the two science interest questions again. When they compared the two groups for women and men, there were no differences for those who had looked at the intelligence images. The women and the men in this group had about equal interest in science and in pursuing a science degree. Women who has seen the romantic images (and presumably were feeling like they wanted to be romantically desirable) reported lower interest in science than men and than the women who had seen the intelligence images.

The researchers conclude “These results support our hypothesis that women, but not men, show less interest in STEM when exposed to cues related to romantic goals versus intelligence goals. We think that women may have distanced themselves from STEM because they experience conflict between the goals to be romantically desirable and intelligent in the male-stereotypes domains of STEM” (p. 5). Sounds convincing.

Or maybe not. There are two things that I find problematic. The first is that their model showed no significant effect for prior science interest. That means that students walked into the lab, answered two questions about their interest in science, saw some pictures, then answered the same questions again and the answers they gave the first time didn’t predict the answers they gave second time. Wow, that’s one heck of an intervention! That, or the measures are problematic and don’t have great test-retest reliability (meaning that even without the pictures, people would answer the questions slightly differently from one moment to the next because they are not well designed questions). This was actually one of the first problems I noticed with the study. The researchers have taken a complex idea – interest in science (which includes interest in math, logical thinking, the natural world, abstract and explanatory thinking and more) and reduced it to a single question “How interested are you in Math and Science?” A single question like this is very prone to shifting answers. One minute I might rate my interest at a 5/7, then next maybe 6/7 because what do those ratings really mean? If we’re talking about nature maybe I’m really interested but mathematical formulas for motion, not so much. To be honest my personal answers would be the opposite – I’m all about the physics but kind of bored by taxonomy. A much more meaningful measure would have used several items, developed and tested for both validity and reliability for measuring interest in science. Krapp and Prenzel’s recent review might be a great a place to start for anyone who is interested. Without a measure that is reliable and really captures what it means to be interested in science, it’s difficult to interpret the results meaningfully.

The second issue is what is really being measured. The authors support their assertion that the effect is due to goal priming by showing that both men and women responded with the appropriate goals when they looked at the romantic and intelligence pictures. Can we know for sure that it was the goals that caused the difference in interest though? No, we can’t. That uncertainty is a normal part of all social research and for that reason alternative explanations should always be explored. My prime contender in this case is stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat is the anxiety that people can feel when they are in situation in which they might confirm a negative stereotype about their gender, racial or cultural group. For example, when reminded of the stereotype that girls aren’t good at math, girls tend to do worse on math assessments than they would otherwise.  Stereotype threat doesn’t just impact achievement though. It effects motivation and interest too. Jessi Smith and her colleagues investigated interest and motivation in a computer science task under conditions where participants felt gender stereotype threats. When they suggested that women aren’t good at math and related tasks, the women in their study showed less interest for completing the tasks. Those women who were normally achievement and goal oriented also changed their motivation from striving to achieve goals to being nervous about failing, a motivation orientation that is associated with lower interest. So, when stereotypes about women are primed in science and math, it seems that interest and motivation goes down.

The central premise of this study is itself a stereotype about women: that they constantly seek romantic validation. Participating in this study itself might have primed stereotypes. I am speculating here but I would find those images to be stereotypically feminine and the whole idea of being romantically motivated to be a negatively-associated female stereotype within an academic environment (think of the derision associated with stories of women who go to university to find husbands – no such parallel exists for men). It seems at least possible to me that priming women with stereotypical romantic images in an academic setting would elicit stereotype threat, a threat that could possibly be related to decreased motivation and interest for science, another stereotypical characteristic. I’m not actually trying to make this claim, just to show that there are other possible explanations than what the authors of the study suggest.

Study 2

 This study was very similar to Study 1, except that instead of looking at pictures the participants overheard conversations that were meant to prime either romantic goals or intelligence goals. The researchers and their assistants stood in the hallway and had a short conversation that was either about doing well on a test or about a recent successful date. The study participants inside the study room could hear the conversations. The authors also did second version that used similar conversations but this time primed romantic goals and non-romantic friendship goals. The authors report that both versions replicated Study 1. Except that it isn’t quite true. In Study 1, men and women showed equal interest when they saw intelligence pictures and when men saw romantic pictures. The basic result was that women who saw romantic pictures expressed less interest than would be expected, all other things being equal. Study 2 shows something entirely different. In both versions, women and men who overheard romantic conversations expressed equal interest in science and so did the men who overheard intelligence or friendship conversations. The only difference was that women who overheard intelligence or friendship conversations showed HIGHER interest in science than would be expected. Let me say that again – women and men responded no differently to having romantic goals primed and the non-romantic goals (intelligence and friendship) led women to express stronger interest in science. When they overheard the intelligence related conversations, women also expressed stronger desire to pursue science related degrees. I don’t see how that replicates Study 1. It seems in my view to directly contradict it.

Study 3

The third study asked women (and only women) to keep track of their daily goals and their math activities (e.g., paying attention in class, doing math homework) and desirability activities (e.g., emailing/texting someone you are interested in or spending time with them). From the students’ diary entries, they found the following relationships:

  • On days that women reported pursuing romantic goals, they engaged in more romantic activities and fewer math activities. They also engaged in fewer math activities (but not more romantic activities) the day after.
  • On days that women reported pursuing academic goals (and the day after), they engaged in more math activities. These days had no impact on their romantic activities.

So, the participants in their study engaged in activities that met their goals for the day, whether academic or romantic. This isn’t a surprise at all and there is no evidence that this is gender specific because no men were included in this part of study. There is also no evidence that it is exclusive to romantic goals because no other goals were studied. It is just as conceivable that people who set interpersonal goals for the day will also engage in less math and more interpersonal activities. That kind of the point of having a goal for the day isn’t it?

But wait, there’s more:

  • On days when the women pursued romantic goals (and the day after) they also felt more romantically desirable.
  • On days when women pursued academic goals, there was no impact on their desirability (it neither increased nor decreased their feelings of desirability). Wait, what? So the whole study is built on the premise that wanting to be romantically desirable interferes with interest and participation in science but there is no evidence that feelings of desirability are in any way negatively affected by pursuing intelligence goals.

This means that the only finding from Study 3 is that activities can be predicted by daily goal setting (either romantic or intelligent).

Some final thoughts

So, what’s my overall assessment? I’m really troubled by the study, not because it disagrees with the way that I approach gender and science but because the evidence is extremely weak and seems to have been interpreted with the researchers’ own expectations heavily in play. The back and forth nature of the findings (in one study romantic goals had a negative effect and in another they didn’t) is not acknowledged and suggests to me that there is probably something else that is actually creating the effect. Not only that, it suggests that the measures (the questions themselves) are probably not stable. There is nothing in this study that convinces me that romantic goal pursuits are in any particular way responsible for women’s underrepresentation in science – not because it’s something I don’t want to be believe but because the evidence just isn’t there.

(As a side note, I’d like to add that the title of the article suggests that the authors did not spend much time with the literature related to science education persistence and participation. The title indicates that the study is about attitudes towards science, which is something entirely different from interest and not addressed at all in the study. I have also not addressed the secondary findings related to interest in English/languages because the primary claims are related to science and math.)

References and other reading

Krapp, A., & Prenzel, M. (2011). Research on interest in science: Theories, methods, and findings. International Journal of Science Education, 33, 27-50.

Park LE, Young AF, Troisi JD, & Pinkus RT (2011). Effects of everyday romantic goal pursuit on women’s attitudes toward math and science. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 37 (9), 1259-73 PMID: 21617021

Smith, J.L., Sansone, C., & White, P.H. (2007). The stereotyped task engagement process: The role of interest and achievement motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 99-114.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist 52, 613–629


18 responses to “Women, romantic goals and science: The evidence just isn’t there”

  1. Thanks Emily! Ya, the study caught my attention and kept coming up all day in my feeds as well so I had to take a look at it in more depth. Stereotype threat is just one possibility but it is something that seems pretty plausible.

  2. Thanks for this. I enjoy reading dissections of a journal article from someone in the field. Great writing too.

  3. Thanks for this. Wouldn’t it make more sense to get at this kind of information in a less scientific way by interviewing people in science at different points of their careers and asking them about their gender identification, career goals, time spent working, sexual orientation, romantic and/or family goals and then pull together a bunch of those voices in a paper or book? Personally I find science and romance don’t mix well, but that’s basically because I spend too many hours working, and I’m queer, so my chances of dating people I work with are way below average. I haven’t had much experience with this, but I wonder if some people find when they date people that aren’t scientists they’re perceived as “geeky” and that may have a negative effect. I think actually talking to people in different fields about their experiences would be way more interesting than these problematic studies.

    • Hi Monologue – Thanks for your comment. And I agree, this is a complex question that maybe warrents a more exploratory qualitative or mixed methods approach. It isn’t about romantic goals directly, but if you’re interested in a more open-ended interview style exploration of women’s career goals and experiences in science, one of my favourites is this article:
      Carlone, H., & Johnson, A. (2007). Understanding the science experiences of successful women of color: Science identity as an analytic lens. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44, 1187–1218. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tea.20237/abstract

  4. Nice post 🙂 It is important to rein-in media interpretations of psychological experiments like these and put them in the context of the wider literature. I have a few thoughts:

    I might be wrong, but I think your first problem with Study 1 is a matter of complex models masking main effects… If I’m interpreting Tables 1, 2 and 3 correctly there are strong correlations between STEM interest pre- and post-test in Studies 1 (r=0.61, p<0.001), 2a (r=0.55, p<0.001) and 2b (r=0.70, p<0.001). Initial STEM interest wasn't significant as a main effect in the multiple regression for Study 1 when other variables are included. However, it is significant as a main effect in Study 2a and Study 2b (and explained a lot of the variance). It would have been nice to see a full model table, though.

    On your second problem, I don't think it matters whether they are measuring romantic-goal-oriented behaviour or stereotype threat. Do the two have to be mutually exclusive? However, I am not familiar with the literature on these two concepts so feel free to correct me!

    In Study 2(a and b) the authors find that romantically-primed women show less STEM interest than intelligence-primed women. The nature of that specific interaction term (condition*sex) in the models for both 2a and 2b corroborate the results of Study 1. This is their main finding. They also note in passing that women were more interested in STEM than men under certain conditions (but this was only significant at α=0.05 in Study 2b, not Study 2a). They consider this to be secondary. It appears from these two observations that, overall, women were more interested in STEM than men post-priming but that women who were romantically primed did not express this as strongly. In other words, relative to women as a group, romantic priming reduced female interest in STEM. I think the word "relative" is important in the authors' interpretation. This still corroborates Study 1, doesn't it? Or would you disagree?

    I agree that Study 3 was a waste of time. On days that I don't feel like working I tend to comment on blogs and get less work done. On days when I feel like commenting on blogs, I don't get a lot of work done… Simple, trivial time budget stuff.

    • Thanks for your detailed comment, Katatrepsis!
      And you’re right, there was significant correlation between pre and post interest in science, it just didn’t show up in the model as a significant main effect in Study 1 (but did in 2a and 2b). It would have been helpful to see the full model tables but I still think it shows potential problems with the measure. In 2a and 2b, a somewhat better measure is used that includes three related items. The fact that prior interest does show up as a main effect in these models where the better measure is used (which it really theoretically should) I think supports the idea that Study 1 should be interpreted with caution.
      And for stereoptype threat or any other possible explanation, I do think it makes a big difference in terms of the implications of the results. I work in science education so applications to learning situations are important to me. If the results are really due to romantic goals that are socially primed, then the implications are strong for the science classrooms. Female students may actually be neglecting math in pursuit of romantic goals. If the effect was due to stereoptype threat, however, then it’s maybe just an artifact of this intervention. Science classes don’t normally prime romantic stereotypes (or they shouldn’t at least) so the implications of the results for science teaching would be minimal.
      For Study 2 your summary is accurate to me but again the interpretation is what matters. An interaction effect on its own isn’t meaningful – the direction is always important. In 2a and 2b, I don’t doubt that they’ve found that goal priming may have an impact on interest in science, perhaps especially for women, and actually I’d really like to see that idea pursued further. The authors frame their study though from the perspective of understanding underrepresentation of women in science. If the effect shows that romantic goals have no different impact on men and women (which is true for 3 out of the 4 outcomes: attitudes and majors in 2a and attitudes in 2b) then does the study really support the idea that romantic goals play an important role in underrepresentation? The fact that the effect seems to be in the direction of higher interest when intelligence goals are primed for women is actually really intriguing and again comes with different implications for science education practice.
      Thanks for the great questions and comments!
      My goal for today was to finish grading summer term papers, so I better get back to it 😉

  5. When I see things like Study 3 I wonder how in the world this passed more than 5 seconds of analytic, critical assessment. Ridiculous. Thanks for this.

    Yes, lumping all math and science together really does not help answer any questions. I found out as I got into more ecology/wildlife biology courses (somewhat to my chagrin, as a heterosexual female) that a higher and higher percentage of classmates was female, so it got to near 50% (super rough estimate). Seem to be a lot of female botanists around, too. With my physics math, and computer science classes, not so much.

  6. So….I haven’t read these studies, but I’m a woman in science…and I have to say that my romantic and nesting achievements have been the outcome of, alternately, scientific burn out and science appreciation. Making your way in a STEM field as a woman in your 30s makes you the repository for career halting sexism. I would compare my early career pursuits in science to one of those monkey rocket tests in the 1960s – a lot of slamming up again brick walls at high speeds. The outcome is, I’ve started to invest less in my career (which is fine – I’m finishing work at 10 pm as opposed to 2 am) spend more time trying to enjoy the other side of my life. Before these career frustrations, I had romantic success, in part, because I was a scientist. That might sound silly, but career chat made first conversations much easier. Several guys have told me he had a fantasies about lady scientists. I would say my romantic life has benefited from my science career.

    So I have a problem with the question of romance v science being asked in the first place – in part because the duality seems very artificial to me. The real reason I have, at times, failed to engage in scientific discourse has been avoidance of the same sexist bullying that a lot of women face at the hands of academic insiders (worst case in high school and then at the end of graduate school). For me openly downplaying interest has been a survival technique for me to pursue science…if that makes any sense.

    I’m very happy to see your analysis here (and in Forbes 🙂 ). Good show my dear.

    • Thanks JFB 🙂 And I agree, there are a lot of assumptions built into even asking this question. Like you, being in science was generally a benefit to me romancewise (although that of course has nothing to do with my career choices…). And focusing on it hides the very real negative experiences that women (and men too) can have in science.

  7. This is not my field of study, just based on personal and anecdotical experience, so please point to any flaws in my reasoning:
    I think that despite the long -social life consumming- hours so common for scientists, the fact that there are fewer women than men in many scientific fields would lead to more ‘partner choices’ for women (I apologize for assuming only hetero couples in my simplified model!).
    In any case, I’d think that many scientists tend to ‘couple’ with other scientists (Sometimes it’s the only people we meet!) and ‘having scientific goals’ is not a disadvantage for either partner.
    Hmmm… maybe I should write a paper about this and send it to the same place as the studies presented… I may get lucky and get the same reviewers!

  8. I’m a field geologist. Images of beaches and mountains remind me of work, not romance. They should show the scientist ladies images of dark smokey conference bars in foreign countries to test for a reaction to romance.

  9. Thank you for posting this, because I, like the author, immediately reacted with “Ugh” but I wasn’t really interested enough (or have the knowledge) to do this type of analysis.

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