Women opt out of mathematically rigorous careers due to personal preference and lifestyle needs, not because they lack quantitative ability, according to a new study in Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 135, No. 2).

Cornell University researchers spent three years reviewing more than 400 articles and book chapters by endocrinologists, economists psychologists, sociologists and neuro-scientists examining sex differences in math and spacial ability.

They found that hormonal, brain and other biological sex differences were not to blame for women's underrepresentation in fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, says lead author, psychology professor Stephen J. Ceci, PhD. Rather, many women drop out of these fields because math-intensive careers tend to have long hours that compete with the demands of parenting, Ceci says.

"The timing of childrearing coincides with the most demanding periods of their careers, such as trying to get tenure or working exorbitant hours to get promoted," Ceci says.

Other factors influence the underrepresentation of females in science, technology, engineering and math. Beginning as early as middle school and lasting until college, girls tend to take just as many advanced math courses as their male counterparts and often receive higher grades, but choose—due to personal preferences or social pressures—to pursue more people-oriented careers in medicine or biology.

The team's research also suggests that women who are highly competent in math often have strong verbal skills as well, which may provide them with more career options than men who have high quantitative abilities, who tend to have skills only in that area.

So what might improve the representation of women in math-intensive fields? The authors suggest that universities, corporations and other institutions offer more family-friendly options such as part-time opportunities that segue to full-time tenure-track work.

"Granted, more men than women score in the top 1 percent of math ability, but that still leaves many women with very high math ability," Ceci says. "If women were represented in math-intensive fields in accordance with their math ability, there would be roughly twice as many women in them as there currently are."

—A. Novotney