It’s well-known now that there are far fewer women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), long thought to be an issue related to women’s disinterest in math and science. Or if not a disinterest, then at least a bias against women who pursue the sciences. But when it comes to undergraduate studies, there are also far more men than women in areas that have little direct relation to science skills, such as philosophy. So what gives? What’s really driving women away from certain fields of study in college?

A new study out of New York University reveals that it’s not necessarily a matter of interest or skill in math or science that prevents women from choosing certain majors, but rather how much gender-based discrimination women think they will face in their field.

students at college

The study, titled, “Gender Equity in College Majors: Looking Beyond the STEM/Non-STEM Dichotomy for Answers Regarding Female Participation,” was published Monday in the American Educational Research Journal. The results of the study reveal that the most significant factor for a woman choosing a college major is gender-based discrimination. For their research, the study’s authors chose not to look at college majors in terms of whether or not they are STEM, but how the majors are perceived by college students.

The study’s lead author, NYU associate professor of economics and education policy Joseph R. Cimpian, and his team categorized 20 common college majors based on six key traits: math orientation, science orientation, gender bias against women, helpful orientation, money orientation, and creativity orientation. They then conducted a survey asking 330 college students about their perceptions of the majors based on these characteristics.

Then, the researchers compared the results to a 2002 survey of 4,850 undergraduate students and found that across the board, the biggest indicator of a woman’s college major was how much or little gender-based discrimination is associated with the field. “The relationships we find for perceived discrimination dwarf those of other predictive factors like the money orientation of the field,” Cimpian said in a press release. Cimpian added, “Similarly, the data does not support the notion that women are math-phobic or science-phobic, as some believe. Rather—and quite reasonably—women don’t like to be discriminated against.”

A woman looks up from a textbook and smiles

Essentially, women are self-selecting out of the majors that they know will lead to the most gender discrimination, regardless of whether or not the major is related to math and science. “It was pretty shocking to see how much perceived gender discrimination mattered” when women chose their college major, Cimpian tells Brit + Co. Even if women had an interest in male-dominated majors, such as engineering, philosophy, or criminal justice, the study found that they would opt for another major.

“What this research suggests is that we should look beyond the STEM/ non-STEM divide, because there are gender imbalances throughout a range of fields,” Cimpian tells us. He also says that “gender discrimination is a really large factor for [college women], so we shouldn’t necessarily be thinking of other factors as equally important” when addressing gender imbalances in academic fields. “The discrimination component is possibly driving a lot of the decisions” that women are making about their college studies, and not other more stereotypical factors, such as the idea that women are more inclined to areas of study that will help society.

According to Cimpian, colleges need to change the way they present majors that are dominated by men if they want to increase gender equality across academic disciplines. “If college administrators want to increase female representation in fields as varied as criminal justice or computer science, our results suggest that the best place to start may be by asking what messages people in these fields are sending about how important gender is to succeed in these fields,” Cimpian said in the press release.

While the research doesn’t directly address the best way forward for colleges, Cimpian says the research shows that discrimination itself is what must be addressed in order to address gender disparities across academic disciplines. Among colleges who want to see more women enrolled in fields that are currently dominated by men, it’s clear they’re going to have to contend with the ways they make women feel unwelcome.

Did gender discrimination factor into your choice of college major? Tell us on Twitter @BritandCo.

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