By Alex Fradera
The representation of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths) is increasing, albeit more slowly than many observers would like. But a focus on this issue has begun throwing up head-scratching anomalies, such as Finland, which has one of the larger gender gaps in STEM occupations, despite being one of the more gender equal societies, and boasting a higher science literacy rate in its girls than boys. Now a study in Psychological Science has used an international dataset of almost half a million participants that confirms what they call the “STEM gender-equality paradox”: more gender-equal societies have fewer women taking STEM degrees. And the research goes much further, exploring the causes that are driving these counterintuitive findings.
Gijsbert Stoet at Leeds Beckett University and David Geary at the University of Missouri analysed several large and often publicly available datasets, like the gender inequality measures taken by the World Economic Forum (WEF; based on metrics like women’s earnings, life expectancy and seats in parliament) and UNESCO data on STEM degrees.
The researchers found the percentage of women STEM graduates is higher for countries that have more gender inequality. For instance, countries like Tunisia, Albania and Turkey, which come out the poorest on the WEF gender equality measures, see women making up 35-40 per cent of STEM graduates, whereas in countries with more gender equality, like Switzerland and Norway, the figure is lower at around 20 per cent, similar to Finland.
To better understand the STEM gender-equality paradox, Stoet and Geary accessed results from a 2015 OECD educational survey of the science literacy and attitudes to science of 15 to 16-year-old students from 67 countries. Objectively, neither boys or girls were more scientifically literate – girls were better in 19 countries, boys in 22, with no difference in the others.
These survey results suggest it is not girls’ lack of scientific knowledge or negative attitudes toward science that holds them back. It’s possible, however, that girls might match or outperform boys in science lessons in some countries and still be making a rational choice to avoid STEM routes because they outperform boys even more in other areas (it’s well documented that girls outperform boys at school on many topics, on average).
Using the OECD survey, Stoet and Geary calculated a personal ranking for each student of their relative ability across the three main areas of maths, science and reading. In all but two of the 67 nations, boys more than girls were personally stronger in science (80 per cent of boys were personally strongest in either maths or science; in contrast, half of girls were personally strongest in reading). Stoet and Geary found that boys tending to be personally stronger in science was most apparent in more gender-equal countries, the very countries where boys go on to pursue more STEM careers. This smooths some of the kinks in the STEM gender-equality paradox: in fairer societies, boys seem to be optimising their future by pursuing science-like activities, whereas girls have other options on the table.
However, questions remain. For instance, why should a motivated and academically talented teenage girl forego a science route because her reading slightly outperforms her other literacies? After all, reading and writing skills are also beneficial to scientists, from paper writing to fundraising.
Stoet and Geary tried to address this question by focusing on gender differences in motivation, in terms of interest, confidence and enjoyment. In 60 per cent of countries, boys showed more interest in science than girls (in various fields, from disease prevention to energy), and the gender-gap in scientific interest was greater in the most gender-equal countries; boys also expressed more confidence in their science abilities in 39 of 67 countries, especially the gender-equal ones. And even though girls reported enjoying scientific activities more than boys in two-thirds of the countries, boys’ enjoyment was higher in the more gender-equal countries.
Why are boys most enthusiastic, interested, and personally strongest at science in more gender-equal societies? The authors suggest that in highly stable countries with strong welfare systems, people can pursue their calling and unlock their personal potential, building their future around their genuine interests and personal strengths. This echoes the finding popularised in online lectures by psychologist Jordan Peterson that sex-related personality differences are higher in gender-equal societies – when societies’ social pressures are less tyrannical, individual tendencies can be expressed more freely. In more repressive cultures, by contrast, young people are liable to prioritise pragmatism – food on the table – over self-actualisation, and as STEM jobs tend to be stable and well-paid, that would encourage more female representation. Consistent with this, Stoet and Geary used a United Nations life satisfaction measure as a proxy for cultural stability and found that more women took STEM degrees in countries where life satisfaction is lower – which tended to be in the unequal societies.
These findings suggest we need a nuanced approach to the sticky issue of gender and participation in science. Firstly, there is no question from this data that objectively, young women across the globe are just as capable to tackle scientific subjects as are young men. And even after taking into account the gender differences in science attitudes and personal strengths, the researchers calculated that, in a society where women’s rational preferences led directly to their level of STEM participation, we should see women take 34 per cent of STEM degrees, while the actual global average is 28 per cent – so other factors unaddressed in this study are clearly leading women away from science roles. So the study doesn’t suggest that we sit on our laurels and validate the status quo.
It does suggest, however, that we misunderstand the current level of STEM gender imbalance if we attribute it entirely to social injustice. A substantial cause of the current STEM gender mix may be the product of young men and women making considered, rational choices to leverage their strengths and passions in different ways.