Women may be vastly underrepresented in STEM education worldwide, but a curious anomaly happens when it comes to girls and women in developing nations, leading to a global gender-equality paradox for young women in STEM.
In a nutshell, multiple studies have found that the lower the gender-equality in a given country, the higher the percentage of women studying STEM.
Gender equality and STEM
Simply put in numbers, before the pandemic, women made up 70% of engineering students in Iran, 42% in Morocco, 41% in Algeria, and 40% in Jordan, but only 29% in Norway, 19% in the U.S., and just 18% in Australia. Those are just some countries, but the pattern repeats itself almost everywhere.
The Global Gender Gap Report (GGGR) by the World Economic Forum (WEF) calculates global gender inequality based on a matrix, including health and survival, educational attainment, labour force participation, percentage of seats in parliament, and more. According to the 2021 GGGR, Norway was third globally. Iran was 150th. Yet Iran has double the percentage of women studying STEM.
Even in the most gender-equal country in the world – Iceland – where a whopping 64% of all tertiary students are women (according to European Union statistics), only 44% of STEM PhD students at the University of Iceland are female. In Denmark, which ranked second on the 2020 Gender Inequality Index (GII), only 33% of STEM graduates are female, according to a 2018 Agency for Science and Higher Education analysis.
Firstly, it should be said that every country’s situation is different. For example, Iran indisputably has less gender equality than Australia or the US, but it also offers free university education to all students. So is it the cost that keeps young women out of STEM? Probably not, since Iceland also offers free education. Then is it societal attitudes? If you look at Iceland, the US, or Australia vs. Iran, that seems unlikely, too.
While these examples don’t tell the whole story, they highlight a paradox. Why do countries with significantly less gender-equality, often have far higher percentages of women studying STEM?
There’s a few different arguments why there’s a gender-equity paradox in STEM. Given the choice, people assume women somehow naturally prefer non-STEM subjects based on perceived gender bias. Objectively, people who assume that are wrong. And here’s why:
Multiple studies in dozens of countries show that pre-teen girls outperform their male peers in standardised math and science tests. Psychologists and neuro-scientists may argue the specific reasons, but the result is undisputable. Preteen girls and boys also enjoy/prefer STEM subjects at roughly the same ratio.
So between the ages of 8-12, all things being equal, young girls are just as interested in, and more proficient, at STEM than boys. So why don’t we see more girls everywhere trending towards STEM? Herein lies the first paradox.
Multiple studies also show that even in countries with near gender-parity, from primary school onward, there’s unconscious bias directed at young girls steering them away from STEM. While that takes many different forms, deep down we all probably have a sense it’s happening.
Nature vs Nurture
The unconscious bias may have different sources. For instance, it’s often cultural – the idea that “girls should play with dolls, while boys should build things” is still inherent in many households today. It may be observational – since women in STEM are already underrepresented, we assume that STEM is more a “guy thing.”
Sometimes, it can even be well-intentioned. For instance, parents may assume that STEM is difficult and they fear their daughters won’t be as successful being in a male-dominated course – especially compared to sons who they ascribe different characteristics, like being more competitive.
Facing this litany of discouraging cultural and social messaging, it’s no surprise that young girls in more developed countries – where there are viable, non-STEM study options – are often pushed away from STEM. This is then wrongly interpreted as them actively “choosing” non-STEM subjects.
To use a poor analogy: if you’re in a sailboat and the wind pushes you in a different direction than you want to go, that’s not an active choice. You can try to go against the wind, but that’s much harder. You go in the direction you’re blown, so it’s wrong for someone to then say that you really chose that destination. The choice was increasingly taken out of your hands the moment the wind started blowing.
Interestingly however, researchers have found over the last 100 years, girls in dozens of countries have actually outperformed their male peers in all subjects (languages, math, social sciences, etc.).
In the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA (a test that measures 15-year-olds’ math, reading, and science abilities), girls from most countries are more likely to say they feel “helpless” at math, but their actual PISA math tests only showed a 2% lower score than boys. A 2018 paper published in Psychological Science found that girls performed about as well or better than boys did on science in 67 countries and regions.
In fact, extensive research shows the best overall predictor of a women’s choice of field (at the degree level), is the amount of gender discrimination she perceives in that field.
So why do countries with lower gender equality have more women in STEM?
While not universally true, generally countries with lower gender-equality tend to also be economically poorer. There are many reasons for that (eg. geopolitics, colonialism, corruption, etc), but an undeniable factor is because a large chunk of the country’s human capital – its women – are marginalised through lower literacy levels and lower job participation.
Zoomed out to a national level, this marginalisation leads to lower GDP, which in turn means a country has less resources to allocate for things like education. Unsurprisingly, with the limited educational resources they do have, after essentials like basic literacy, poorer countries tend to emphasise STEM over non-STEM, because STEM generates more income for the individual and the nation.
Herein lies the second paradox. In countries with high levels of gender inequality and limited educational resources, only the better students tend to go on to higher levels of education. Research shows girls are better overall at school, and specifically better at STEM, in late secondary school when poorer countries and poorer families are having to make tough choices about where to allocate limited resources to best serve their future interests.
Simply put, the cream then rises to the top, and practical economic decisions – like whose education to invest in – can start to trump gender-prejudice. Weirdly, this is something those countries have somehow gotten right, despite all the wrong reasons.
The future of women in STEM
Young girls have more than what it takes to compete academically in an equal, fair system. They can even succeed in an unequal system. They shouldn’t have to, but that’s another story altogether.
Ironically, in seemingly far more developed countries, the more we believe that we are getting close to achieving gender equality, the more we run the risk of convincing ourselves that any remaining gender disparities – such as the number of girls choosing STEM – are due to differences in abilities. They’re not, but the minute we start believing they are, then they might as well be.