It all seems so innocent. The romantic photographs. The enthusiastic conversations about great dates. Texting a boyfriend. Thinking about a boyfriend as Prince Charming. Yet research shows that all these everyday life experiences may have the potential to undermine women’s interest in serious careers, perhaps especially careers in math and science.
The Effect of Just Looking at a Few Romantic Pictures
In the first of a series of studies, male and female college students were shown a series of pictures (and given a bogus reason for viewing them). The pictures were either stereotypically romantic ones – beach sunsets, romantic restaurants, candles – or intelligence-related images, such as books, libraries, or eyeglasses. Later the students were asked how interested they are in math and science (including computer science, chemistry, physics, engineering, technology, and so forth) and how likely they are to pursue a career in one of those fields. They also rank-ordered their preference for various academic majors.
The results were clear. Women who saw romantic pictures expressed less interest in STEM fields and said they were less likely to pursue science/math-type academic majors than were the women who saw the pictures or books or libraries or eyeglasses. For the men, the different pictures didn’t matter.
Remember, all it took to undermine women’s expressions of interest in science and math was looking at a few cheesy matrimaniacal pictures!
The Effect of Overhearing a Conversation about a Date
In the second set of studies, the researchers made the matrimania seem incidental. While waiting for a study to start, college men and women accidentally-on-purpose overheard the experimenter and an assistant, just outside the door, discussing the experimenter’s great date s/he just had the night before. In the comparison conditions, the conversation was about the difficult test the experimenter had just taken that s/he had done really well on, or about a great visit the experimenter had just had with a same-sex friend.
Can you predict the results?
Yes, they were the same as before. The women who overheard the conversation about the date expressed less liking for science or math, and less interest in pursuing science- or math-type majors, than women who overheard a conversation about a test or a visit from a same-sex friend. Men weren’t affected.
The exposure to matrimania in these studies, too, seemed utterly trivial. The overheard conversations were very brief – the experimenter cut off each discussion by saying, “I’ll tell you more about it later. I’ve got to get this session started.” Still, just that wisp of an overheard matrimaniacal conversation sent women scurrying away from any professed interest in math or science.
Text Your Boyfriend Today, Forget about Your Math Class Today and Tomorrow
In the last study, only women participated and the only women included in the study were those who had already said they were interested in pursuing degrees or careers in math or science and who were enrolled in a college math class. Theoretically, they should not be so easy to dissuade from their pursuit of STEM fields.
This was a daily diary study. Every day for 21 days, the women kept diaries in which they recorded whether they had called or emailed or texted someone they were romantically interested in, whether they spent time with such a person, whether they paid attention in math class, and whether they spent time on math homework. They were also asked directly, each day, whether they were trying to be romantically desirable and whether they were trying to be academically intelligent. There was even a question about feeling romantically attractive – I’ll call that the “I feel pretty” measure.
The women who said they were trying to be romantically desirable on a particular day, and those who said that they communicated with or spent time with a romantic interest, also paid less attention in math class and spent less time on math homework. What’s more, the effect carried over to the following day as well. So, the matrimaniacally-involved women were putting less into their math education on the day of their romantic pursuits and the day after. But, they did feel prettier on those days!
Thinking about Boyfriends: The Problem with the Prince Charming Mindset
Take, for example, one particular version of the marital mythology – the fantasy of the Knight in Shining Armor. He of wealth and royalty whisks away the poor bedraggled maiden, and converts her into his princess who lives happily ever after. You can ask women if they believe that these myths apply to their own lives, but they would know how dumb it would sound to say yes. It is possible, though, to find out in a more indirect and non-obvious way, whether some women really do associate a romantic partner with a White Night or a Prince Charming. Just ask them to press one button when the word “boyfriend” is paired on their computer screen with another word or phrase like “hero” or “Prince Charming,” and to press a different button when the word “boyfriend” is instead paired with words or phrases like “kind” or “Average Joe.” The actual procedure is a bit more complicated, but I’ve said enough to explain the bottom line. Some women push the relevant button much more quickly when “boyfriend” is paired with heroic words than when it is paired with ordinary ones. More importantly, the same women who are especially likely to associate boyfriends with rescue heroes “showed less interest in high-status occupations, the economic rewards that accompany them, and the educational commitment they require.” Who needs a great job or a superb education when you can just step into the glass slipper and live happily ever after?
[Also see: What’s wrong with rom-coms?]
Park, L. E., Young, A. F., Troisi, J. D., & Pinkus, R. T. (2011). Effects of everyday romantic goal pursuit on women’s attitudes toward math and science. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1259-1273.
Rudman, L. A., & Heppen, J. B. (2003). Implicit Romantic Fantasies and Women’s Interest in Personal Power: A Glass Slipper Effect? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1357-1370.