A recent study reveals a surprising trend — there are fewer women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in wealthier and more gender-equal countries.
The study, conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Missouri and Leeds Beckett University, UK, is published in Psychological Science.
The researchers have found that countries known for their gender equality, such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, have relatively few women among STEM graduates, whereas countries that are considered more socially conservative, such as Turkey, Albania and Algeria, have a much higher percentage of women in STEM. They call this the “gender-equality paradox.”
What accounts for this paradox?
“In wealthy gender-equal countries, people (women and men) have more options than in other countries,” David Geary, Curators Professor of Psychological Sciences in the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science, told The University Network (TUN). “It is in these countries where we find fewer women getting college degrees in engineering and computer science, which was the focus of our study.”
In more liberal countries with greater wealth, women are also able to make occupational decisions based on personal preference, without as much regard for economic factors. In contrast, a high-paying STEM career might seem more attractive to women in countries with less economic stability.
“When they live in a wealthy country with a social safety net, they are more likely to choose college degrees and occupations based on their academic strengths and personal interests,” Geary told TUN. “In less wealthy countries, economic factors have a stronger influence on occupational choices.”
The researchers analyzed data from 475,000 adolescents across 67 countries or regions.
The researchers also studied the motivating factors behind students’ choice of STEM or non-STEM related fields, such as academic strengths and personal interest.
They have found that girls’ and boys’ achievements in STEM subjects were very similar. The data shows that in two of every three countries, girls performed similarly to, or better than, boys in science.
However, the research also showed that overall, boys were more likely to excel in science, while girls were more likely to excel in reading comprehension. The personal academic strengths of students are likely to influence their choice of STEM or non-STEM related fields, according to Geary.
“Girls, even when their abilities in science equaled or excelled that of boys, often were likely to be better overall in reading comprehension, which relates to higher ability in non-STEM subjects,” he said in a statement. “As a result, these girls tended to seek out other professions unrelated to STEM fields.”
The researchers have also found a near-universal trend in which girls tended to register less of an interest in science subjects.
“The further you get in secondary and then higher education, the more subjects you need to drop until you end with just one,” Gijsbert Stoet, Leeds Beckett Professor in Psychology, said in a statement. “We are inclined to choose what we are best at and also enjoy. This makes sense and matches common school advice.”
The research has also revealed a disparity between the number of girls capable of pursuing STEM degrees versus the number that actually do. In the UK, for example, it was found that 29 percent of STEM graduates are female, even though 48 percent of girls might be expected to take those subjects based on science ability. The number drops to 39 percent when both science ability and interest in the subjects are taken into account.
Implications for Education
Geary believes that the study’s findings can help refine education efforts to encourage girls and women with strength in math or science to pursue STEM careers.
“One approach is to better identify secondary students who have their best subjects in math or science and who have positive attitudes towards these fields,” Geary told TUN. “Most of the STEM interventions directed at girls do so broadly, rather than focus on the subset of girls that have the ability and interest profiles that are common among people who go into and enjoy working in STEM fields.”
Stoet also believes that a targeted intervention would be more effective in encouraging girls and women to choose to study STEM subjects.
“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,” Stoet said in a statement.