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How Culture Impacts Gender Inequality in Engineering Fields

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Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Aciel Eshky was often told that science was for boys. But when her aunt started to teach her basic computer programming at 10 years old, she found that she enjoyed the subject and excelled at problem solving. After high school, pursuing a degree in computer science seemed like a natural fit for her, so when a classmate in her program told her that women were weaker than men at math, it came as a shock. “I was really annoyed,” Eshky says. “I felt like I was being bullied.”

38 percent of Saudi Arabia’s STEM graduates are women. In context, that number is even higher than Iceland’s 35 percent, even though the Nordic country ranks number one globally for social gender equality. Norway, which has the second-highest level of gender equity, sees only 26 percent of women graduating with STEM degrees.

Taken together with these numbers, Eshky’s experience is illustrative of the so-called “gender-equality paradox” reported in a recent headline-grabbing paper: Countries ranking higher on measures of gender equality, the study found, tend to have fewer women pursuing a STEM education than those further down the gender equality ranks.

Despite the emphasis on ‘choice’ that tends to drive women in countries with high gender equity to pursue degrees outside of STEM, the authors note that this cannot fully account for the disparities they found. Rather, their analysis suggests that there are girls with the grades, confidence, and the enjoyment of science to go into STEM, who still end up pursuing other careers. Advocates say understanding whether these women perceive science as a hostile environment or are influenced by gender stereotypes is crucial for figuring out how best to reach them.

“Maybe there is a difference in the choices that girls and boys make,” says Shohini Ghose, a professor of physics and computer science at Wilfrid Laurier University and director of the university’s Center for Women in Science, “but any good scientist will tell you that if you want to know what the actual effect of a particular variable is in this choice, you’d better make everything else equal.”

Evening things out might eventually lead to a situation other than perfect parity, says Heather Douglas, a professor of philosophy of science at the University of Waterloo. “I can imagine a world where statistically not every field has the same number of men and the same number of women; but until we at least have representation of the number of women who do have strengths in mathematics, I don’t want to hear about it.”

Mhairi Crawford, development director at the WISE Campaign, says that it might not be a perfect proxy for measuring progress, but it still works as a target. In the U.K., “engineering has got to 11 percent,” she says. “If we can get to 40 percent women in physics, we’ll be having a party in the street.”

WISE has found preliminary evidence of success in a program that changes how STEM jobs are presented to teenagers and has engaged external researchers to run a longitudinal study exploring whether the program had a lasting, concrete impact. But perhaps the clearest takeaway from Stoet and Geary’s findings is that culture is crucial in developing interventions.

For Eshky, the freedom to pursue computer science might look like a glimpse of gender equality, but her career choice was still restricted. As a teenager, she wanted to study architecture, a field that isn’t open to women in Saudi Arabia. “I enjoy what I do. It’s alright,” says Eshky. But “for the last couple of years, I’ve had regrets.”

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