December 01, 2021 | Press Release

Older Siblings Influence Younger Sisters’ STEM Preference

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MPIDR Researcher Natalie Nitsche and colleagues show in their recent study that the composition of a sibling group likely influences the decision of younger sisters to pursue a STEM major in college, but not for that of younger brothers.

Siblings likely influence the STEM preference for young women but not young men. A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany, Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and University Hawai’i found indications that young women were more likely to prefer a STEM major in university if they were raised with a small number of siblings, or with more male than female siblings, or if they had an older sister with high math achievement. In contrast, the team found that for young men, their preference for majoring in a STEM field was mostly driven by their own math ability.

Sibling group composition likely plays an important socializing role for girls

“This paper broadens our understanding of the possible down-stream influences of an older sibling’s gender and role modeling, while also accounting for the presence of other siblings”, says Natalie Nitsche, Deputy Head of the Laboratory of Fertility and Well-Being at MPIDR.

The results of the paper recently published in the journal Sex Roles indicate that sibling group composition itself likely plays an important socializing role for girls, as it predicts their educational choices. The predicted gender-gap in STEM major choice was reduced to 6 percent from 13 percent and lost statistical significance when sibling-compositions were taken into account.

Girls flourish when having a high-achieving older sister

Sibling group compositions may influence educational preferences in general, and STEM major choices specifically. The researchers found support for the resource dilution theory, which proposes that girls from larger families may be disadvantaged not only in terms of the amount of schooling they receive, but also in terms of their chances of enrolling in a STEM field.

In addition, the researchers found support for the presence of role modeling, but only under specific circumstances – namely, among female same-gender siblings when the older sister was good at math – which lends support to the hypothesis that role modeling occurs in contexts characterized by same-gender academic competition.

Most importantly, these effects were found to apply only to young women, and not to young men, across all the concepts considered.

Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth

Natalie Nitsche and her colleagues Limor Gabay-Egozi and Lloyd Grieger used data from the Child and Young Adult module of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 cohort. This is a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population consisting of 12,686 individuals who were between the ages of 14 to 22 on December 31, 1978. The respondents were re-interviewed annually until 1994, and biennially thereafter.

“I developed the idea to examine the question when I observed my then five year old daughter playing with her friend. Her friend’s exposure to her older brother’s toys and male friends meant that she was exposed much more to concepts socially constructed as ‘male’ than my daughter, a first born child with a younger sister. It became obvious how much siblings influence each other”, says Natalie Nitsche.

Original Publication

Gabay-Egozi, L., Nitsche, N., Grieger, L.: In Their Footsteps or Shadow? Gender Differences in Choosing a STEM Major as a Function of Sibling Configuration and Older Sibling’s Gender and Math Ability. Sex Roles (2021). DOI: 10.1007/s11199-021-01255-0

Authors and Affiliations

Limor Gabay-Egozi, Bar-Ilan University

Natalie Nitsche, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock

Lloyed Grieger, University of Hawai’i

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Christine Ruhland

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Author of the paper

Deputy Head (Fertility & Well-Being)

Natalie Nitsche

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The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.