MU study finds more gender-equal countries have fewer women in STEM education

The gender gap is more visible in sciences like physics, computer science, engineering and mathematics.
Graphic by Gillian Smith

An MU study found countries that tend to be more gender-equal have a significantly higher percentage of male students going into science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The research was led by David Geary, a professor in the psychological sciences department, and Gijsbert Stoet, a professor in the School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett University in the U.K.

For the study, Geary and Stoet particularly focused on finding the root of the sex differences in inorganic sciences such as physics, engineering and other technology-based subjects. They excluded areas related to biology and medicine, as they did not find significant differences in sex in those fields.

Geary and Stoet collected data from 72 countries and gathered information on 475,000 teens aged 15–16. The adolescents were asked to complete international achievement tests that generated data on their math, science and reading competencies.

“We also got a measure of gender equality, which would be things like measuring lifespan, access to education, number of women in parliament,” Geary said. “Higher equality means women have more opportunities to do as well as or better than men.”

The study revealed that as countries get more gender-equal, the sex differences in the number of people getting STEM degrees grows.

“So in countries like Finland, 22 percent [are] women [who] get degrees in physics, engineering, computer science, but in Algeria it is over 40 percent,” Geary said.

Geary explained that part of the sex difference comes from the difference in the students’ best subjects. The achievement test revealed that women are usually best in literature or reading whereas men tend to be better in science or math.

“The more gender-equal countries’ education is more liberal, so students can kind of pick and choose classes beginning in high school,” Geary said. “When they are given that option, the difference increases. Boys take more science courses and girls take more literature-based courses.”

Sophomore nursing major Maggie Recca said she saw similar differences in her high school.

“Gender roles are everywhere,” Recca said. “They are ingrained into our education system and our society and the way you interact with people. In high school, my AP physics class had mostly men, and a lot of men from my graduating class went into engineering or other fields of science.”

Geary said more developed countries have greater economic niches, so students have more opportunities to choose subjects based on their interests.

Geary and Stoet also looked at overall life satisfaction in less developed countries like Algeria to explain the results.

“Economists have previously shown that things like employment opportunities, income, economic stability and risks are correlated with life satisfaction,” Geary said. “So one reason women are going into STEM in these less gender-equal countries might be due to financial reasons and job opportunities.”

Geary said that MU, and colleges in general, should focus their recruitment resources on girls whose best subject is science and math. Programs like mentoring or summer camps would be more successful if these teens were identified and targeted early on.

“If you want to get women into more inorganic sciences, you might target women who have an ability profile, interest profile of people already in those fields,” Geary said.

Recca agreed with Geary on targeting girls at a younger age and said they need to be appreciated and treated equally, especially because STEM classes are more male-dominated.

“A lot of women have passion to study the STEM fields, but it takes some encouragement to do that because those are traditionally men’s fields of work,” Recca said.

Edited by Stephi Smith |

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