The dearth of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in the U.S. and U.K. is well known, and it turns out it’s also an issue in other Western countries. It’s usually attributed to sexism that bars women from entering these fields. Other explanations are a difference in interests and preferences: perhaps women prefer to enter fields other than STEM for reasons other than the presumption that they’ll be discriminated against or criticized in the field. That idea—that there are inherent differences in the preferences of males and females (and we don’t know whether these are acculturated, genetically based, or a mixture of these)—was the subject of James Damore’s infamous Google memo, for which he was demonized and, at least in part, fired. (I’m told that Damore had a history of bad interactions at Google.) Finally, one can claim that women have lower abilities in STEM fields than do men, so even if they preferred such studies, the meritocracy would weed them out.
A new paper in Psychological Science (free Unpaywall access; pdf here, reference at bottom) by Gijsbert Stoet and David C. Geary points to the second explanation: consistent differences in preference, and dispels the third, finding no consistent sex differences in abilities. This doesn’t rule out sexism, as they didn’t test for that, but the important factor seems to be preference. That’s because the authors find a strong and counterintuitive correlation between the gender gap in stem degrees and the index of gender equality in countries. In those countries with more gender equality, the gap between men and women in getting STEM degrees is larger. The authors explain that as resulting from a combination of sex-based preferences and the standard of living in different countries.
Let me say first that I think there’s plenty of evidence that men and women differ in their preferences for what kind of work they want to do. I suspect, but don’t know, that part of that difference is based on evolution. After all, men and women have evolved separately for some six million years since we split from our common ancestor with the chimps, and it’s not unreasonable to think that different sex roles over that period led to the evolution of different preferences. I hasten to add that even if this be true, it is no reason to treat men and women unequally or give them different educational opportunities based on their sex. I’ve often emphasized that true equality between the sexes means that nobody be treated differently because of their gender, and that men and women be given the same opportunity from birth to realize their talents and ambitions. But if preferences be different, this may still lead to different outcomes.
It turns out that this is what Stoet and Geary think about the difference between men and women in STEM participation. The paper is a bit complicated, so I may make an error or two in describing the results. I thus urge readers interested in this topic to download the paper and read it for themselves.
The study. The authors used data from PISA, a study of science literacy, mathematics, and reading comprehension in students throughout the world. In this paper the sample was large: 472,242 students from 67 countries (15-16 years old), all assessed for these abilities. Also measured were interest in and enjoyment of science. For the 67 countries, the authors also obtained UNESCO data on college degrees in STEM fields (the range was 12.4% women in Macao to 40.7% wp,em in Algeria, with a median of 25.4% of STEM degrees obtained by women).
Data on “overall life satisfaction” (OLS) was obtained from a UN survey in 2016, using a ten step ladder as a metaphor for life satisfaction (highest at the top), and asking people to imagine which rung of the ladder they stood on.
Data on gender equality as obtained from the World Economic Forum survey in 2015, using data on earnings, enrollment in college, life expectancy, representation in government, and other indicators.
- In overall science literacy, women and men were pretty equal throughout the world. As they authors note, “We found that girls outperformed boys in 19 (28.4%) countries, boys outperformed girls in 22 (32.8%) countries, and no statistically significant difference was found in the remaining 26 (38.8%) countries.” That is, there’s no inherent trend for one sex to be better than the other, though there are statistically significant differences among countries. That militates against some inborn difference and suggest that those differences are cultural.
- However, when the authors looked at intraindividual differences in ability, that is, relative ability, they found that women generally ranked higher in reading compared to their average ability, while men ranked higher in science and mathematics compared to their average ability. Combined with the data above, I interpret this to mean that, overall, men and women are equal in science literacy and math comprehension, but since women have higher reading ability than men, they are higher overall academically. Nevertheless, there’s a big and consistent difference in these areas. As the authors note:
” In all countries except for Lebanon and Romania (97% of countries), boys’ intraindividual strength in science was (significantly) larger than that of girls (Fig. 2b). Further, in all countries, girls’ intraindividual strength in reading was larger than that of boys, while boys’ intraindividual strength in mathematics was larger than that of girls. In other words, the sex differences in intraindividual academic strengths were near universal.
“. . . Another way of calculating these patterns is to examine the percentage of students who have individual strengths in science, mathematics, and reading, respectively. To do so, we first determined students’ individual strength. Next, we calculated the percentage of boys and girls who had science, mathematics, or reading as their personal academic strength; this contrasts with the above analysis that focused on the overall magnitude of these strengths independently of whether they were the students’ personal strength. We found that on average (across nations), 24% of girls had science as their strength, 25% of girls had mathematics as their strength, and 51% had reading. The corresponding values for boys were 38% science, 42% mathematics, and 20% reading.
“. . . The above analyses show that most boys scored relatively higher in science than their all-subjects average, and most girls scored relatively higher in reading than their all-subjects average. Thus, even when girls outperformed boys in science, as was the case in Finland, girls generally performed even better in reading, which means that their individual strength was, unlike boys’ strength, reading.”
Remember, this is a gap in performance between men and women in their individual areas of strength (an “intraindividual gap”), not an absolute gap between individuals.
- When the authors looked at this “gender gap” in relative performance, they found out that it was larger in countries that were more gender equal. That is, the more equal the country in gender treatment, the greater the relative performance of women in reading over science and math, and the greater the relative performance of men in science and math over reading. Here’s a figure showing that, which also shows you the countries that are more gender equal (higher on the y axis) and those at the bottom (countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Tunisia, and Algeria):
- Not only was the intraindividual “gender gap” larger in more gender-equal countries, but the percentage of women getting STEM degrees was lower in more gender-equal countries. Places like Norway, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, and Switzerland, which rank high on gender equality, had a much lower percentage of women among college STEM graduates than less gender-equal countries like the UAR, Tunisia, Turkey, and Algeria. Would you have expected that? The negative correlation is striking (same Y axis: higher Y scores mean more gender equality):
What does this mean? The authors interpret this to mean that in countries with greater gender equality (which also have higher life satisfaction, as you might expect), women can exercise their preferences in careers, which is to go into careers that are more reading-oriented than STEM-oriented. They’re able to do that because those societies are also more socialistic, and thus women don’t have to be forced to go into the higher-paying STEM careers simply to get by. In contrast, less gender-equal societies tend to make women pursue STEM careers because those are a faster way out of poverty (such careers tend to be higher paying). Or, as the authors say in academ-ese:
We propose that when boys are relatively better in science and mathematics while girls are relatively better at reading than other academic areas, there is the potential for substantive sex differences to emerge in STEM-related educational pathways. The differences are expected on the basis of expectancy-value theory and are consistent with prior research (Eccles, 1983; Wang & Degol, 2013). The differences emerge from a seemingly rational choice to pursue academic paths that are a personal strength, which also seems to be common academic advice given to students, at least in the United Kingdom (e.g., Gardner, 2016; Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, 2015).
The greater realization of these potential sex differences in gender-equal nations is the opposite of what some scholars might expect intuitively, but it is consistent with findings for some other cognitive and social sex differences (e.g., Lippa, Collaer, & Peters, 2010; Pinker, 2008; Schmitt, 2015). One possibility is that the liberal mores in these cultures, combined with smaller financial costs of foregoing a STEM path (see below), amplify the influence of intraindividual academic strengths. The result would be the differentiation of the academic foci of girls and boys during secondary education and later in college, and across time, increasing sex differences in science as an academic strength and in graduation with STEM degrees.
The fact that the intra-individual differences also decrease with gender inequality would, then, reflect the fact that women are pursuing STEM paths more often in those countries, and those studies reflect on their test scores, narrowing the gap between their reading abilities and their science/math abilities.
What do we do about it? These results (and of course they need to be replicated, and do read the authors’ list of caveats) suggest that in freer, more egalitarian societies, women will be less likely to pursue STEM careers because, for one reason or another, they’re simply less interested in science. That will upset those who think that men and women are equal in preferences, but the data are there. It also leads to the notion that to get more women into STEM fields, the way to do it is not to make societies more egalitarian. Indeed, the way to do it is make them less egalitarian! Nobody wants that!
So what do we do? First, we have to ask whether we really want to strive for full gender equality (equal numbers) in STEM careers—or in careers in which women gravitate.
If women aren’t interested in STEM careers, what is the point of such striving? Well, there are some points; one being that women in STEM careers serve as role models for women who want to be in those fields but may be discouraged by an imbalanced sex ratio. That, at least, mandates that we work to make sure that women face no barriers to entering such careers, as other studies have pointed to gender bias as a bar to entry. The authors suggest that we find those women who have a higher STEM scores than reading scores, and concentrate on giving them the opportunities to get into STEM. And of course (this is my suggestion), we need to monitor various bars to women’s entry and try to eliminate them; academic departments are doing this now by, among other things, making sure that qualified female candidates are not neglected.
Here’s a short video on the study.
Stoet, G. and D. C. Geary. 2018. The gender-equality paradox in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. Psychological Science online; 0:0956797617741719. doi 10.1177/0956797617741719