A large number of social factors have discouraged women from pursuing careers in science and technology. But in a number of countries, an increasingly egalitarian view of gender differences has been associated with math and science grades for girls. However, that change has not been followed by increased participation in science and technology activities; in fact, the frequency of women pursuing degrees in these areas is often higher in societies that are far from moderate.
Two researchers, Gijsbert Stoet of the UK and David Geary in the US, decided to explore this paradoxical trend. Their analysis suggests that the situation may be the product of a complex mix of relative talents, general trust, and social factors. The results drive home that, if we want to attract and retain some of the best talents in the sciences, it will take more than just ensuring that they have equal access to advanced degrees.
A global test
Stoet and Geary’s research relies on a lot of publicly available information. One of the keys to this work is the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which gives standardized tests to students around the world. The most recent iteration of these tests was given to about half a million students in a total of 71 countries and, thus, provides a national measure of students’ skills in math, science, and reading comprehension. In particular, when it comes to science, the PISA survey also asks about students’ interest in and enjoyment of science, as well as whether they are confident that they can do some basic science analysis without supervision. .
To understand the meaning of a country’s test scores, the two researchers also collected information on gender gaps in different countries from the World Economic Forum, education data from UNESCO, and general life satisfaction in the country. language from the United Nations Development Program.
Overall, the data shows that the gender gap in science is pretty small among the children tested. While boys outperform girls in science in 22 countries, girls are at the top in 19. There is no clear relationship between these results and the gender equality of a country.
But things get complicated when Stoet and Geary look at the relative strengths of each student. This involves averaging their scores for all three subject areas, then comparing the score in each subject to the average to identify the student’s strongest subject. So, someone can be below average but still in maths is the strongest subject or can be really better than average in reading comprehension but very good with science. Among boys, it is more common to have science as the strongest subject – this is true in all countries but two (Lebanon and Romania are the opposite), which means that it is also true in most of those 19 countries where girls on average are overachieving. boy on science test.
Statistically, this analysis of the popularity of boys in every single country; in reading, the converse is true, with girls coming out on top in every single country. Therefore, even in situations where girls are better than boys in science, they consistently outperform them in reading by an even larger margin.
It may seem that this alone can account for the small percentage of women pursuing careers in science and technology—but it is not. In every country, the percentage of women who obtain degrees in relevant fields is lower than the percentage who have science or mathematics as their strongest subject. So, even if people are induced to get degrees in the areas they excel at, it will not explain the gender gap among graduates.
So what can explain this? There are hints when it comes to social factors. In 76 percent of the countries, boys show a greater interest in science, and this effect is especially important in countries with gender equality. In addition, they can demonstrate confidence that they understand the scientific process well enough to do science without external guidance. Again, this is especially true in countries with high gender equality.
This doesn’t mean they can investigate without help, or even think they can—only that they do tell they can when asked. In fact, the researchers checked and found that their measures of self-esteem were only weakly correlated with positive test scores. When done on an individual basis, boys’ self-ratings are higher than their test performance in about half of the countries; for girls, this is only true in seven percent of countries, which suggests that boys’ trust is not entirely justified.
What this does not explain, however, is why the gap tends to be larger in countries with high levels of gender equality. But Stoet and Geary have an idea here: they note that these countries tend to have higher levels of economic security, with a larger social security average. Countries where the gender gap is smaller tend to have less social security. Researchers suggest that the economic security provided by fields such as technology may have a strong draw in these countries, driving more women into the field.
They tried to use statistical analysis to see if the data were consistent with this being the case, but the results were ambiguous. You may be right, but at least another powerful factor that they don’t recognize is at play.
However, researchers have found two things that may explain some of the gender gap in people taking science degrees: boys are more confident in their science abilities (even when that’s not justified); and even in cases where girls have better performance in science, their performance in reading is even greater. But it’s clear that more is going on. “If performance, opportunity, happiness, and personal impact were the only basis for choosing a STEM career,” Stoet and Geary wrote, “we would expect to see more women entering STEM career paths than doing so, ” which means we still have some work to do if we want to attract some of the most intelligent people into the scientific endeavor.
Psychological Science2017. DOI: 10.1177/0956797617741719 (About DOIs).