Women are less likely to take degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) if they live in countries with higher levels of gender equality, new research has found.
Dubbed the “gender equality paradox’”, researchers from Leeds Beckett School of Social Science and the University of Missouri found that countries with high levels of gender equality, such as Finland, Norway or Sweden, had a lower proportion of women among their STEM graduates
The researchers believe this might be because countries with lower gender equality often have less welfare support, making relatively highly-paid STEM careers more attractive.
Leeds Beckett professor in psychology Gijsbert Stoet said: “STEM careers are generally secure and well-paid but the risks of not following such a path can vary.
“In more affluent countries where any choice of career feels relatively safe, women may feel able to make choices based on non-economic factors.
“Conversely, in countries with fewer economic opportunities, or where employment might be precarious, a well-paid and relatively secure STEM career can be more attractive to women.”
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, also looked at what motivates girls and boys to choose to study STEM subjects, including overall ability, interest or enjoyment in the subject, and whether science subjects were a personal strength.
Using data on 475,000 adolescents across the world, the researchers found that while boys’ and girls’ achievement in STEM subjects was broadly similar, science was more likely to be boys’ best subject.
Girls, even when their ability in science equalled or excelled that of boys, were often likely to be better at reading comprehension, which relates to higher ability in non-STEM subjects. Girls also tended to register a lower interest in science subjects. These differences occurred in nearly all 67 countries and regions studied.
Prof Stoet added: “The further you get in secondary and then higher education, the more subjects you need to drop until you end with just one.
“We are inclined to choose what we are best at and also enjoy. This makes sense and matches common school advice.
“So, even though girls can match boys in terms of how well they do at science and mathematics in school, if those aren’t their best subjects and they are less interested in them, then they’re likely to choose to study something else.”
In the UK, 29% of STEM graduates are female, whereas 48% of UK girls might be expected to take those subjects based on science ability alone. This drops to 39% when both science ability and interest in the subject are taken into account.
Despite extensive efforts to increase the number of women in STEM, levels have remained broadly stable for decades.
“It’s important to take into account that girls are choosing not to study STEM for what they feel are valid reasons, so campaigns that target all girls may be a waste of energy and resources,” explained Prof Stoet.
“If governments want to increase women’s participation in STEM, a more effective strategy might be to target the girls who are clearly being ‘lost’ from the STEM pathway: those for whom science and maths are their best subjects and who enjoy it but still don’t choose it.
“If we can understand their motivations, then interventions can be designed to help them change their minds.”