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The STEM gender equality paradox- from fallacies to facts

by on 2018/04/20

This post was written by Margarita Kanevski and Sinead Rhodes

During a recent school visit, Prince Harry and his fiancé Meghan Markle embarked on a journey to urge young girls to take up STEM subjects. STEM is an acronym that stands for the learning of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and royalty are not the only ones pushing to narrow the gender gap across these subject areas. With consistently growing technological innovations, the demand for STEM skills is rising, yet there is an alarming shortage of female students and employees in STEM fields, further fuelling the gender wage gap.

In recent years, STEM has become a huge buzzword among teachers, researchers and policy makers. Promoting STEM education in girls has been a national priority for many western nations including the UK, USA, Australia, Finland, Switzerland and Norway. Yet, with international women’s day not too far behind us, these nations have found themselves ambushed by rather discouraging headlines like: Fewer women want to be scientists in wealthy, equal, countries, “The West is way behind Iran and Saudi Arabia when it comes to women in science”, and More gender equality leads to less women in STEM.

These claims follow recent findings that women in countries with greater gender equality tend to be less likely to graduate with a STEM degree than women residing in less gender-equal countries. What is behind these headlines? There may be more to this. For example, the alleged front-runners (according to one of the outlets), Iran and Saudi Arabia were not included in the study’s analysis, raising questions about what is actually going on here.

What did the study do?

The study involved the analysis of available data from 472,242 adolescents (15-16 years) from 67 different countries regarding their academic achievement or strength in science, maths, and reading. The study also examined their attitudes towards broad science learning, that is, their interest in, enjoyment of and their beliefs about personal ability to succeed at science (what is referred to as self-efficacy beliefs). They also used data from UNSECO on how many students from those countries graduated with a STEM degree between 2012-2015. Countries were also ranked on gender equality using the Global Gender Gap Index that assesses the extent to which women fall behind men on things like wages and life expectancy. Lastly, overall life satisfaction in each of the 67 regions was extracted from United Nations Development Programme (2016).

The researchers found that countries with a higher degree of gender equality such as Finland and the Netherlands, had a lower percentage of female STEM graduates than countries with higher gender inequality such as Tunisia and United Arab Emirates. In general, adolescent girls performed as well as and sometimes even better than boys on science literacy. A closer look at the data revealed that despite being equally good at science, when the adolescents were compared on their individual academic achievement or strength, 38% of boys were the strongest on science, 42% had an individual strength at maths, with reading as their weakest subject in 80% of cases. In contrast to this, 51% of girls had an individual academic strength in reading, compared with just 24% and 25% of girls having science and maths as their personal academic strength, respectively. So even in cases where girls outperformed boys on science on the national average, within their own subject range girls tended to do better at reading than science/maths whereas boys tended to score higher on science and maths as opposed to reading. A science advantage that favours boys was more apparent in more gender equal countries where STEM degrees are predominantly male. Boys also reported having more interest and enjoyment (self-efficacy belief) for science related subjects and were more confident in their abilities to pursue science – this difference was again stronger for gender equal countries.

So it is not the case that ‘gender equality leads to less women in STEM’ but rather, it appears that girls in more gender-equal countries are making higher education decisions based on their individual strengths and preferences. But this still doesn’t explain why countries like Finland and Norway that scored very high on the STEM gender gap, had a relatively high proportion of girls whose personal strength was actually science (24% and 18%, respectively), meaning other factors must be at play.

The authors speculated that girls living in gender equal countries have better economic security. As a result they do not actively seek out higher paid STEM occupations as much as girls where gender inequality is high and state funded financial insurance is not an option.  To test this the researchers conducted what is called a mediation analysis – an analysis that is used to find out about which factors could be causing an association between two things; in this case between gender equality index and gender differences in STEM graduation rates. The authors used overall life satisfaction to represent women’s economic security and found that overall life satisfaction only partially predicted the relationship between gender equality index and gender differences in STEM graduation rates. Additional, unknown factor(s) were also likely to be causing the findings to emerge. Until we have numbers to support these assumptions we should be reluctant to assume that young women’s career choices are guided by welfare state commodities. Furthermore, the researchers did not isolate the variable of “economic pressure” so we should be cautious in accepting overall life satisfaction as a true measure of the social safety net that the authors refer to – especially at a day and age where other sources of economic data are so readily available for research purposes.

Other things to bear in mind…

Confounders – it is important for us to take a step back and consider other potential factors that weren’t taken into account during in the study making the conclusions far from categorical.  For example, could it be that STEM jobs are more culturally desirable and/or more readily available in the less gender equal countries?

The analysis was conducted on data from 67 and 195 of the world’s countries, constituting only about a third of the world’s regions.

Psychology, education and healthcare are just some of the science related programs not included in the study that are generally dominated by women. Although these are not exclusively defined as STEM subjects, they do require STEM skills like statistics and maths and this is something the media interpretations do not acknowledge.

Also, if we consider that the average age of an EU graduate is around 27, this means that there was at least 10 years’ difference between the adolescent respondents (15-16 year in 2015) to those graduating with STEM degrees in 2012-2015. This gap is rather concerning and we would need to see STEM data from those same 16-17 year olds when they graduate in around 2020 to be able to move the gender paradox from fallacy to fact.

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