In countries with stark gender inequality, the women are thought to lag behind in almost all walks of life. However, there appears to be one rather unexpected area where they might in fact have closed the gap.
A study has found that almost the same number of women as men study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in these countries. On the other, in countries with greater gender equality, fewer women study STEM subjects.
“The results are only surprising to people who think that gender equality will automatically lead to men and women making more similar choices,” Gijsbert Stoet, professor of psychology at the University of Essex and one of two authors of the study, told The Wire. “There is other research as we have published showing that men and women become slightly more different psychologically in more developed nations.”
The gap in science education between the genders is biggest in the most developed nations of the world. This is the gender-equality paradox of STEM education. For example, Finland is among the most gender-equal countries in the world, and female students in its high-schools outperform their male counterparts in STEM subjects. However, fewer than 25% of its science college graduates are women. The situation is similar in the other Scandinavian countries.
Policymakers don’t like paradoxes. They’ve implemented several programmes in many countries to increase women’s participation in STEM fields, with mixed results. For example, women’s inclusion in STEM hasn’t changed significantly for decades in the US. In India, 35-40% of those enrolled in science programmes are women. Against this background, it has been difficult to zero in on the paradox’s origins.
The authors of the study hypothesised that students tend to decide whether to pursue STEM education based on two things: their idea of what subjects they are strong in and opportunities available after college. (In high-school and college, students pick subjects they believe they’re strong in – a rationale supported by their mentors and teachers.)
They then analysed the academic achievements of about 475,000 young adults aged 15-16 years in over 70 countries. The data came from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey of 2015, conducted every three years worldwide. It included questions about interest in science, ‘enjoyment’ of science and learning.
The duo found that in 97% of countries, the male students scored higher in science subjects while the female students scored higher in reading. But this doesn’t mean the girls fared worse in science. Further analysis revealed that girls generally scored the same as or more than boys in science – but they were even better at reading. So they rated reading as their greatest individual strength, whereas the boys did the same with science and math. And this difference in individual strengths between genders is greater in countries that are more gender-equal.
Within this framework, the authors think the paradox becomes less baffling. For example, Algeria, United Arab Emirates and Qatar are among the least gender-equal places in the world, and 35-40% of their STEM graduates were women (comparable to India). The Scandinavian countries, on the other hand, are more gender-equal but fewer than 25% of its women are are STEM graduates. In other words, women ‘leaked out’ of the STEM education system between high-school and college, with the greatest losses in those countries that are more gender-equal.
“I think one reason women in less gender-equal countries are more likely to choose STEM is because they are – in part – motivated differently,” Stoet said.
Wealthier nations also have more study options and their women are less afraid of ending up without work if they pursue other avenues. In less wealthy nations, on the other hand, gender inequality is higher and their women see STEM education as a path to economic security.
“It is important to recognise the paradox because it shows that what people believe about women and STEM is often wrong,” Stoet elaborated. “It’s simply not the case that women will start studying STEM subjects simply because they live in a more gender-equal country” (as defined by the World Economic Forum).
The results are not very surprising, said Rohini Godbole, a physicist at IISc Bengaluru – “but the particular reasons for the gap or its absence will differ from country to country.” At least in the last 50 years in India, “there has never been a gender divide about what girls should learn and what they should not learn,” she said.
So if we want to get more women into STEM in India, we’ll need to focus on students 10-15 years old, and tailor strategies to their needs. As Stoet said, “It’s in this age range that the most important STEM choices are being made.”
Lakshmi Supriya is a freelance science writer based in Bengaluru.