Puzzlingly, women in countries with greater gender equality are less likely to take degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). New research delves into this ‘gender equality paradox’.
You’d expect countries which make it harder for women to carve their own path in life to have fewer women involved in STEM fields — however, that is not the case. It’s actually quite the opposite: countries like Algeria or Albania enjoy a greater percentage of women (and of their total female population) amongst their STEM graduates than Finland, Norway, or Sweden.
The STEM of the issue
Researchers from the Leeds Beckett University in the UK and the University of Missouri in the USA wondered what’s up and set out to investigate. Their working hypothesis was that this divide stems from the poorer quality of life in countries with lower equality, which often have little welfare support, making STEM careers (which are generally better-paid jobs) more attractive to women who live there. The teams also looked at what factors motivate boys and girls to choose STEM subjects, including overall ability, whether or not science subjects were a personal academic strength, as well as personal interest or sheer enjoyment of the topic.
The data used in the study was drawn from 475,000 teenagers across 67 countries and regions. Boys and girls had overall similar achievement levels in STEM fields, however, science was more likely to be the best subject for boys. Girls, even in cases where their ability and achievements in science were comparable to or greater than that of boys, were more likely to be better overall in reading comprehension, which is more closely tied to non-STEM subjects. Girls, overall, also tended not to be as interested in science subjects as boys. The authors note that these differences were near-universal across all the countries and regions in their analysis.
So on the one hand, girls generally tend not to care about science as much as boys, and they’re also, generally speaking, likely to be better than boys at non-STEM-related skills. According to first author Gijsbert Stoet from LBU, this already explains some of the gender disparity we see in STEM fields participation.
“The further you get in secondary and then higher education, the more subjects you need to drop until you end with just one. We are inclined to choose what we are best at and also enjoy. This makes sense and matches common school advice.”
And it makes sense; with limited resources to invest (both financial and time-wise) in education, we all want to go for something we both like and are good at. According to these findings, girls by-and-large seem to be naturally better at non-STEM-related tasks. I’m not saying they’re not good at STEM-related skills, and the authors aren’t either — it’s just that they’re even better at doing something else.
Where gender equality comes in
That explanation, however, only tells part of the story. STEM fields, after all, tend to be the better-paying ones, and that’s certainly a powerful motivator when deciding on a career path. So, based on the criteria I’ve listed above, the team looked at how many girls could be expected to study in STEM fields. They took the number of girls in each country that had the necessary ability in STEM and for whom it was also their best subject and compared to the number of women actually graduating in STEM.
All things considered, they report that every country had a disparity between those two figures, however, more gender equal countries had the widest gaps. In the UK for example, 29% of STEM graduates are female, whereas 48% of girls might be expected to take those subjects based on science ability alone, and 39% could be expected to do so once both ability and interest were factored in.
“Although countries with greater gender equality tend to be those where women are actively encouraged to participate in STEM, they lose more girls from an academic STEM track who might otherwise choose it, based on their personal academic strengths,” says co-author Professor David Geary, UoM.
“Broader economic factors appear to contribute to the higher participation of women in STEM in countries with low gender equality and the lower participation in gender-equal countries.”
Using the UNESCO overall life satisfaction (OLS) figures as a stand-in for economic opportunity and hardship, the researchers found that in more gender equal countries, overall life satisfaction was higher. The team reports that STEM careers are generally more secure and well-paid than their competition. However, in countries where any choice of career feels relatively safe (i.e. richer countries, which tend to be more gender equal) women may put more emphasis on non-economic factors, such as personal preference, over economic factors, such as pay. Sex differences in academic strength and interests would thus factor in much more in women’s college and career choices in a more gender-equal country, Geary adds.
The findings could help guide efforts of getting more women into STEM, where their presence has remained broadly stable for decades despite efforts to increase participation.
“It’s important to take into account that girls are choosing not to study STEM for what they feel are valid reasons, so campaigns that target all girls may be a waste of energy and resources,” adds Professor Stoet.
“If governments want to increase women’s participation in STEM, a more effective strategy might be to target the girls who are clearly being ‘lost’ from the STEM pathway: those for whom science and maths are their best subjects and who enjoy it but still don’t choose it. If we can understand their motivations, then interventions can be designed to help them change their minds.”
The paper “The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.