What Motivates STEM Students? Depends on Their Gender

Men are more likely to pursue science, technology, engineering, and technology fields for the money, while women seek intellectual stimulation.

President Obama has made a point of pushing science, technology, engineering, and math education—and for good reason: The demand for STEM professionals outpaces the current supply, and because too few college students are choosing STEM majors, the gap isn't narrowing. But according to a new survey (PDF) from Microsoft and Harris Interactive, the United States' global competitiveness isn't a factor for most students who pursue science of math. What does motivate them, it turns out, depends on their gender.

The survey found that 68 percent of STEM majors say one of their major motivating factors is financial. That makes sense—STEM graduates have higher starting salaries than their peers. The same number say they are attracted to science and math fields because they are "intellectually stimulating and challenging." But salary is the top factor for male students and intellectual stimulation is the top factor for female students.

Furthermore, 49 percent of female STEM majors said they chose their field "to make a difference", compared to a relatively paltry 34 percent of male students. It's particularly interesting given that three teen girls swept the Google Science Fair this year, with the judges commending the young women's "intellectual curiosity, their tenaciousness, and their ambition to use science to find solutions to big problems."

The findings have important implications for efforts to increase the number of students pursuing STEM fields. Gender-specific messaging based on the results could help solve the STEM shortage, particularly if it helps boost the number of women in the field. But at the same time, the national push for STEM majors also needs to help male students understand that solving societal problems is more important than the pursuit of a paycheck. After all, wouldn't you rather have a doctor who cares about your health, not just how much he's getting paid?

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Idaho National Laboratory

Julian Meehan

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