Women in gender-equal countries less likely to gain STEM degrees

More liberal environments may encourage women to follow their interests, psychologists suggest

February 23, 2018
Female Muslim scientist
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Women in countries with high levels of gender equality are less likely to gain degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, according to a study.

Revealing what they called the “educational-gender-equality paradox”, psychologists David Geary, from the University of Missouri, and Gijsbert Stoet, from Leeds Beckett University, drew on data for hundreds of thousands of students worldwide to examine adolescent achievement in science, mathematics and reading. Drawing on figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, they then looked at the number of women going on to complete STEM degrees.

They found that women in countries with high levels of gender equality, such as Finland and Norway, were significantly less likely to gain degrees in these fields.

Exploring what might be driving this difference, Professor Geary and Professor Stoet discovered that students were more likely to pursue a degree in a field that suited their strengths. According to the data, this was typically maths and science for boys, and reading for girls.

The differences in attainment in these areas were greatest in more gender-equal nations, the study says.

Professor Geary and Professor Stoet say that the liberal mores in gender-equal countries may allow personal preferences to be expressed more strongly. And they add that, in countries with lower levels of equality, a well-paying career in science or engineering may be seen as an investment in a more secure future.

“We suspected that [the difference in degree uptake] was partly related to economic concerns,” Professor Geary told Times Higher Education. “We didn’t have a perfect measure of that so we looked at the overall life-satisfaction rate – which economists have found to be correlated to economic opportunity, salary and general life risks.

“We found it explained about a third of the relationship, suggesting that a lot of women in these gender-unequal countries may pursue STEM degrees not necessarily based on their interests or personal strengths but more for the utility of the degree.”

Professor Geary said that a lot of previous research has “focused on absolute differences”, such as mean scores in science and reading, but what a student’s best subject is is probably more important.

“You may be very good at math or science, but if you’re even better in reading comprehension and literature, then the latter would be your best subject,” he said.

Nevertheless, Professor Geary added, there are still significant numbers of girls and women whose best subject at school is maths or science, and in every country the researchers looked at, this number was higher than the percentage of women getting degrees in these fields.

“If the interventions [to improve female participation] focused on the girls who have the academic profile and the interests that are common in people who go into these fields they might be more successful,” he said.


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