Limitations of the Gender Equality Paradox

by Kassandra Burd, M.Sc. Cognitive Neuropsychology, University of Kent

Kassandra Burd

It’s completely sensible to think that if only we lived in a more gender-equal nation, there would be more women working in STEM.

It is often assumed that if men and women are perceived as equals, the balance of women who occupy STEM field positions would be on par with men.

However, according to a study published in APS’s Psychological Science, this is actually not the case. It would appear that there is a “gender equality paradox” that exists in nations that are known to discourage equality of the sexes (Stoet & Geary, 2018).

For instance, in countries such as Algeria where women often face employment discrimination, 41% of college graduates in STEM fields are female, whereas in countries such as the U.S., the proportion of women in STEM is much lower (Stoet & Geary, 2018).

In Jordan, engineering majors are made up of 40% of women, whereas in the U.S., they only make up 19% (Mastroianni & McCoy, 2018). The implication is that when women are empowered in countries promoting freedom of choice and total autonomy, they are less likely to choose STEM fields as their desired career. What could be the possible reasons for this negative correlation?

One of the assumptions has to do with gender-equal countries encouraging women to pursue whatever occupation they prefer, or work towards wherever their strengths lie.

In most countries, males tend to excel in math/science-related areas, whereas females excel more in reading and comprehension (Khazan, 2018). According to the statistics, 24% of girls mentioned science as being their strongest subject, whereas 38% of boys said that science was their strongest.

As for reading and comprehension, 51% considered reading to be their best subject, while only 20% of boys excelled in reading (Khazan, 2018). This finding not only generates questions about cultural differences but biological differences, as well.

Could it be that women just aren’t interested in pursuing STEM? This could be a possibility, but it could also be that women aren’t motivated to pursue STEM careers due to the discrimination they’re likely to encounter in the process. Lack of interest might stem more from the unwelcoming, toxic environment that is perpetuated by a dominant culture of men rather than a mere disinterest in the maths & sciences.

Therefore, it may be inaccurate to ascribe lack of women in STEM to biological differences. Moreover, at a young age, girls are often persuaded to engage in play that fulfills the traditional female role of nurturer, while boys are pushed towards more challenging subjects that frequently involve play related to science and engineering. Ultimately, this sheds light on the notion that environment plays a prominent role in men and women’s interests.

Another assumption is that less gender-equal countries provide less support to women who don’t undertake traditional gender roles but rather wish to pursue careers instead. Because of the lack of support and financial security, women might gravitate towards STEM professions due to the fact that they yield superior financial outcomes (Khazan, 2018).

This might partially be true, but it would be imprecise to assume that women in less gender-equal countries believe a STEM profession to be their only choice. Essentially, this creates the conventional stereotypical narrative that the only reason why women choose to pursue a career in STEM is because they believe it is the only true path to success. Further, it perpetuates the erroneous assumption that women just simply aren’t interested in STEM subjects; or worse, that they are not as competent as their male counterparts.

In short, it is important to note that there could be potential confounding factors and limitations that were not considered in these studies; it is evident that further research should be conducted to better comprehend the rationale behind this phenomenon.

However, it is an interesting concept that women might be less inclined to enter STEM fields in nations that advocate for gender equality. Perhaps gender and culture influence one another in ways yet to be discovered. Despite this, it is clear that women who do wish to pursue STEM careers face insurmountable barriers that prevent them from doing so.

According to research, there is a greater number of women who do excel in the maths and sciences than the number of women who end up with STEM degrees (Stoet & Geary, 2018). The point isn’t so much whether women are interested in STEM, but more about making their desired pursuits more encouraging and easily accessible in order to increase the likelihood of success.

It is no doubt that women have much to contribute whether it be in STEM fields or non-STEM related fields, and that we must eliminate the barriers that ignore women’s accomplishments and hinder their success. Women should be able to pursue their desired career choices without fear that there is no room for advancement, and without the societal pressures that attempt to influence women in decisions that are rightfully theirs.