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Psychol Bull. 2009 Mar;135(2):218-61. doi: 10.1037/a0014412.

Women's underrepresentation in science: sociocultural and biological considerations.

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Department of Human Development, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


The underrepresentation of women at the top of math-intensive fields is controversial, with competing claims of biological and sociocultural causation. The authors develop a framework to delineate possible causal pathways and evaluate evidence for each. Biological evidence is contradictory and inconclusive. Although cross-cultural and cross-cohort differences suggest a powerful effect of sociocultural context, evidence for specific factors is inconsistent and contradictory. Factors unique to underrepresentation in math-intensive fields include the following: (a) Math-proficient women disproportionately prefer careers in non-math-intensive fields and are more likely to leave math-intensive careers as they advance; (b) more men than women score in the extreme math-proficient range on gatekeeper tests, such as the SAT Mathematics and the Graduate Record Examinations Quantitative Reasoning sections; (c) women with high math competence are disproportionately more likely to have high verbal competence, allowing greater choice of professions; and (d) in some math-intensive fields, women with children are penalized in promotion rates. The evidence indicates that women's preferences, potentially representing both free and constrained choices, constitute the most powerful explanatory factor; a secondary factor is performance on gatekeeper tests, most likely resulting from sociocultural rather than biological causes.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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