Marrying smart or marrying instead of being smart? The goal conflict between MRS degrees and STEM degrees

In this blog post, I review a number of studies that suggest that telling women to focus on their MRS degree (aka getting married) while in college can make women less interested in earning a STEM degree (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math). Why does this matter? Because the STEM fields are in desperate need of women. Luckily, research also suggests that women in STEM are more desirable than women may realize.

Susan Patton, aka, “the Princeton mom” has recently published a book called, Marry Smart, in which she advises college women to find husbands while they are in college—the sooner the better, and at any cost. She says “until you find a spouse, I would advise you invest your effort and energy at least 75 percent in searching for a partner and 25 percent in professional development”.

Many have spoken out about the potential flaws and damage of her message, including how it may harm women’s self-esteem, self-worth, lives and marriages (See Huff Post; NY Post; Washington Post).

I argue that another detrimental effect of Patton’s advice is that, if heeded, it could make women avoid degrees and careers in STEM fields.

The Romance-STEM Conflict

For women, the goal of being “romantically desirable” may interfere with the goal of pursuing STEM. Firstly, STEM has traditionally been considered a “masculine domain” (Eagly, 1987). Studies have shown that when asked to “Draw a Scientist,” the vast majority draw male scientists (Thomas, 2006). Therefore, women who are trying to catch the attention of male suitors might avoid STEM in order to not compromise their femininity (Park, Young, Troisi, & Pinkus, 2011).

Secondly, there are stereotypes that people in STEM lack extraversion, social skills and physical attractiveness (Beardslee & O'Dowd, 1961). These characteristics are highly valued in romantic partners—especially in women (Buss & Barnes, 1986). Therefore, women may avoid STEM majors in order to avoid being labeled as social/physically unattractive.

A number of studies highlight the stereotypes of women in STEM. For example, in one study people wrote stories about a hypothetical woman engineer. She was described as unlikeable, unattractive, unfeminine, and a “social deviate” (Yoder & Schleicher, 1996).

Another study asked participants to rate photographs of women on physical attractiveness; then asked them to guess the major of the same women. Results showed that the less attractive people found each picture, the more likely they were to guess the woman was an engineer (Sarma, Clerkin, & Hong, 2012).

A third study showed that among teens, girls who were good at physics were also assumed to be less popular, less liked and less feminine compared to girls who were good at music (Kessels, 2005).

Thus, stereotypes about women in STEM seem to clash with romantic desirability. But does this effect what majors and careers women choose to pursue?

When women think romance, they stop thinking STEM

Across multiple psychological experiments, Lora Park and colleagues show that when college women think about romantic goals, their interest in STEM diminishes (Park et al, 2011). 

In study one, college students were shown 15 digital images. Half of the students viewed “romantic” images (e.g. romantic restaurants, beach sunsets, candles); the other half viewed “intelligence” images (e.g. libraries, books, eyeglasses). The results showed that women who viewed the romantic images reported less interest in STEM compared to the women who viewed the intelligence images.

In study two, college students waited in a room while the experimenter went to “look for a missing student”. The experimenter then proceeded to have a (prearranged and scripted) conversation just outside the doorway. Half of the groups overheard the experimenter talk about a recent date (romance condition); the other half overheard the experimenter talk about a recent exam (intelligence condition).

The researchers found the same results. Women exposed to “romance” conversations reported less interest in STEM compared to women exposed to “intelligence” conversations. Interestingly, women in the intelligence condition actually had more interest in STEM than their male counterparts in the same condition. So, clearly, women are interested in STEM, if the conditions are right.

To prove that romance, specifically, lowers women’s interest in STEM, the researchers duplicated this last study, except that students overheard a conversation either about going on a date or hanging out with a friend. The results remained. Women exposed to “romance” were least interested in STEM.

Why this matters?

These findings have real-life consequences. Data collected by the National Science Foundation shows that while 58% of bachelor degrees are awarded to women, only 20-30% bachelor degrees in STEM are awarded to women.

We need to close this gender gap. STEM careers are lucrative, thus more STEM women could help close the gender-wage gap.Moreover, having more women could help advance STEM fields. Research has shown that diverse groups are better and more innovative problem-solvers compared to non-diverse groups (Page, 2007); and that companies with women in decision-making roles outperform companies that do not have women leadership (Catalyst, 2013).

While some claim women are absent from STEM because “women are bad at math”, research shows this is untrue. There are few consistent gender differences in math ability; the main contributor to the “gender gap” in STEM is that women are simply opting out of STEM careers (Ceci, Williams, & Barnett, 2009).

The perceived conflict between “romance” and “STEM” may be one reason why women avoid STEM. The outdated messages of Patton and others who encourage women to focus on their MRS degree in college are only making this situation worse.

And the real kicker? Women are actually more concerned about the conflict between STEM and romantic desirability than men are. In a recent survey, my colleagues and I found that women significantly underestimate how desirable men find women engineers (Sarma, Clerkin, & Hong, 2012).

So ladies, try not to let the MRS degree get in the way of your STEM degree. The two may not be as incompatible as you think, and we sure need all the women scientists, techies, engineers and mathematicians that we can get.


Beardslee, D. C., & O'Dowd, D. D. (1961). The college-student image of the scientist. Science, 133, 997-1001.

Buss, D. M., & Barnes, M. (1986). Preferences in Human Mate Selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 559-570.

Catalyst (2013). Why Diversity Matters.

Ceci, S. J., Williams, W. M., & Barnett, S. M. (2009). Women’s underrepresentation in science:  Sociocultural and biological considerations. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 218-261.

Eagly, A. H. (1987). Sex differences in social behavior: A social-role interpretation.  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kessels, U. (2005). Fitting into the stereotype: How gender-stereotyped perceptions of prototypic peers relate to liking for school subjects. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 20, 309-323.

National Science Board. (2010). Science and engineering indicators—2010. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

Page, S. (2007). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. Princeton University Press.

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.

Sarma, M., Clerkin, C.,&  Hong, Y, Y (2012), Career-romance conflict: Are engineers hot or not? Poster presented at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention.

Thomas, M. M. (2006). The draw a scientist test: a different population and a somewhat different story. College Student Journal, 40, 140-148.