STEM’s Gender Equality paradox
Gina Rippon explores the Gender-Equality paradox. This refers to data demonstrating that, in those countries where the national gender equality gap is narrowest, we find the largest STEM gender gaps in secondary and tertiary education. Why is this and what does it show us?
Gina will be speaking at the WISE Conference, looking at our Skills, our Future – come along to join in the debate and discussions. Hear new insights and take away practical skills and examples you can use in your career and within your organisation.
For those of us concerned about the under-representation of women in STEM subjects, an emerging twist to the story is the so-called Gender-Equality paradox. This refers to data demonstrating that, in those countries where the national gender equality gap is narrowest (think Scandinavia), we find the largest STEM gender gaps in secondary and tertiary education1. One interpretation has been that the emergence of gender equality is associated with improving social and economic conditions and that this allows the ‘natural expression’ of ‘innate differences’ to emerge. In less developed countries, economic necessity may drive women into areas of expertise for which they are not fundamentally suited or which are actually counter to their biologically determined preferences; given a choice, they will choose to avoid them. The ‘People versus Things’ or even ‘empathising versus systemising’ characterisation of women and men is a common theme in such interpretations.
An alternative, though linked, explanation with respect to specific data on cognitive skills is that although girls may be equally as good as boys at STEM-relevant subjects, they are superior at reading and reading-related skills. This is the basis of an ‘academic strengths’ argument, suggesting that girls will choose degree subjects or enter professions where they are more empowered or more likely to be successful by their possession of such skills. As examples of such professions, writing and, rather puzzlingly, the painting was mentioned in coverage of this material in the popular press (with no comment that I could find on the assumption that reading skills were somehow less relevant to STEM)2.
It is worth a close look at how such arguments emerge from the data. The paper referred to above-investigated STEM enrolment between 2012 and 2015 in sixty-seven countries using an international database. It revealed that, universally, there were fewer women than men obtaining STEM degrees. These findings were then related to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, based on gender inequalities in areas such as earnings, health, seats in parliament and financial independence. This was where the apparent paradox emerged: in those countries with the most gender equality, the gender gap in STEM enrolment was highest. Finland (where 20.0 per cent of STEM graduates are female), Norway (20.3 per cent) and Sweden (23.4 per cent) were the prime examples of this puzzle.
Measures of school performance in science and maths revealed vanishingly small sex/gender differences. The data for reading showed a different story: in all countries measured, girls performed better and in all instances, the sex/gender differences were greater than those for science and maths. The authors of the paper focussed on these differing academic strengths as a potential answer for the Gender Equality Paradox. They generated a ‘best subject’ index for all participants, ranking performance scores on science, maths or reading to identify the strongest subject for each participant. There were marked sex/gender differences here, with fifty-one per cent of girls having reading as their strongest subject as opposed to twenty per cent of boys; science was the strongest subject for thirty-eight per cent of the boys and for twenty-four per cent of the girls. So, although girls were generally as good as boys at science, they were markedly better at what was identified as a more humanities-based skill.
The next link in the chain of this particular argument was that, in less developed countries, factors such as economic necessity, and the acknowledgement that a STEM education was likely to be of better value in terms of future employment and earnings, would have priority in the career path chosen by girls as well as boys. In more gender-equal countries, however, girls had the freedom to choose those subjects which they thought would suit them best, that is, the ones they were good at. Overall, life satisfaction could be given priority over economic necessity.
To be fair, the authors of this paper did not take an essentialist stance on these life-choice differences. But it has been linked with another similar paper, this time on sex differences in personality differences across 55 different cultures3. Higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness were shown in those countries with the smallest gender gaps. The authors here explicitly espoused a deterministic interpretation: “It is proposed that heightened levels of sexual dimorphism result from personality traits of men and women being less constrained and more able to naturally diverge in developed nations. In less fortunate social and economic conditions, innate personality differences between men and women may be attenuated.”
Some of you may recognise this paper as the one referenced by James Damore in his memo to Google employees suggesting that attempts to address the differential representation of women and men in the organisation were failing to acknowledge a fundamental explanation for the imbalance: “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women may differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t have equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”4 David Schmitt, the lead researcher on the paper, did criticise this interpretation of the paper, but the essentialist theme is, nonetheless, clear.
The very existence of this paradox, however, interpreted, is important for any attempts to address the underrepresentation of women in science. The surface story here is that career choices are driven by preferences and/or temperament and that, when freed from economic drivers, STEM subjects will not be chosen by those who have skills elsewhere or who have innate personality characteristics unsuited for STEM-based disciplines. And the majority of those making such choices will be women.
A core assumption in discussions of the Gender-Equality paradox is that all other things being equal, the greater the gender equity in any society, the greater the freedom anyone in such societies has to make choices which can be based on personal preferences, lifestyle satisfaction or particular strengths. But are all other things equal?
Something of an unexamined footnote in Stoet and Geary’s paper is that there were also data on measures of self-belief in science ability and enjoyment of science. You might not be surprised that, overall, boys had higher levels of self-belief in their science ability; you might be more surprised that this is particularly true in more gender-equal countries – the very countries where girls were apparently choosing not to do science. How accurate were these boys’ assessments of their ability? Comparing these assessments with their performance scores, it emerged that in thirty-four of the sixty-seven countries covered there was evidence of boys overestimating their science ability, whereas there was the only evidence of this tendency in girls in five of these countries.
An additional aspect to the equality of choice claims is the assumption that the options available are equally available, equally welcoming. Do we think this is true of STEM-based disciplines? One issue could be the extent to which gender-science stereotypes exist in the countries under scrutiny. If science has an image as a male-oriented domain, or as a discipline where males are more likely to possess the superior talents needed for success or as an institution where there is strong evidence that male performance is more highly rated, then the attractiveness of STEM subjects must be diminished, particularly where more welcoming alternatives are available. A study in 2014, reporting data from more than 350,000 participants in 66 different countries, demonstrated a powerful link between male gender-science stereotypes and women’s representation in science 5. Even where there was greater overall gender equity, such as in the Netherlands, the existence of stereotypes connecting men with science was a powerful predictor of greater gender gaps in science.
Understanding the causes of the continued under-representation of women in science will require attention to the many factors that contribute to this. We should be on the alert for interpretations based on unchallenged assumptions suggesting an illusion of free choice, especially where they ignore key variables which can clearly act as potent gatekeepers 6
- Stoet, G. and Geary, D.C., 2018. The gender-equality paradox in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. Psychological science, 29(4), pp.581-593.
- Schmitt, D.P., Realo, A., Voracek, M. and Allik, J., 2008. Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of personality and social psychology, 94(1), p.168.
- Miller, D.I., Eagly, A.H. and Linn, M.C., 2015. Women’s representation in science predicts national gender-science stereotypes: Evidence from 66 nations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), p.631.
- Cheryan, S., Master, A. and Meltzoff, A.N., 2015. Cultural stereotypes as gatekeepers: Increasing girls’ interest in computer science and engineering by diversifying stereotypes. Frontiers in psychology, 6, p.49.