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The Complex Relationship Between Gender Equality and Women in Engineering

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Though the numbers are always changing, only 27 percent of all students currently taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female, while in other nations where gender equality is considered to lag behind, as many as 41 percent of college graduates in STEM fields are female. So what explains the tendency for nations that have traditionally less gender equality to have more women in science and technology than their gender-progressive counterparts do?

According to a new paper published in Psychological Science by psychologists Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary, it might be due to the fact that women in countries with higher gender inequality seek the clearest possible path to financial freedom. And often, that path leads through STEM professions.

Their study found that girls performed about as well or better than boys did on science in most countries, and in almost all countries, girls would have been capable of college-level science and math classes if they had enrolled in them. But when it comes to their relative strengths, boys’ best subject was science, and girls’ was reading.

“Countries with the highest gender equality tend to be welfare states,” they write, “with a high level of social security.” Meanwhile, less gender-equal countries tend to also have less social support for people who, for example, find themselves unemployed. Thus, the authors suggest, girls in those countries might be more inclined to choose STEM professions, since they offer a more certain financial future than, say, painting or writing.

The findings could be seen as controversial, since the idea that men and women have different inherent abilities is often used as a reason, by some, to explain the gender gap in STEM fields. But this line of research, if it’s replicated, might hold useful takeaways for people who do want to see more Western women entering STEM fields. In this study, the percentage of girls who did excel in science or math was still larger than the number of women who were graduating with STEM degrees. That means there’s something in even the most liberal societies that’s nudging women away from math and science, even when those are their best subjects.

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