As the cultural and political barriers against the participation of women in the economy in terms of pay and leadership, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment dissolve, one might expect to see a greater proportion of women entering the STEM workforce. (WEF, 2018)
However, while in the U.S. men and women split 50-50 the college-educated portion of the total workforce, women make up only 29% of the STEM workforce, according to data from the National Girls Collaborative Project.
Even more puzzling, girls seem to be avoiding coursework that leads to STEM majors. In computer science where only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam are female, with only 18 percent of computer science college degrees going to women. (Khazan, 2018)
And it's not only the U.S. workforce in which the number of women graduating into STEM jobs is lagging.
In countries like Norway where women are well-integrated in the economy in terms of pay and leadership, where they thrive in terms of health and survival and are empowered politically and socially, the percentage of women in STEM careers (~24%) is much lower than in countries like Algeria (~41%) where women are much less well-integrated.
This phenomenon is what researchers Stoet and Geary call "The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education." (Stoet & Geary, 2018)
In the 67 countries included in their study, both girls and boys do well in science and math, while girls out-perform boys in reading. In addition, both boys and girls have different preferences for "favorite subject," with boys in most countries choosing math and science while girls choose reading. The "favorite subject gap" is, like the STEM gender gap, smaller in those countries with greater gender gaps.
The authors of the study explain the paradox by suggesting that the more socially progressive countries empower women to choose careers based on personal preferences while women in countries like Algeria see STEM as providing a necessary economic advantage in societies in which they have little cultural or legal leverage.
What about women in countries where the gender gap is much narrower?
For an Algerian female student, a STEM career promises economic security in a less female-friendly society.
Certainly a young woman can choose from a wider range of professions than her Algerian sister, but why wouldn't a STEM career be at least as attractive as any other?
STEM offers many kinds of advantages, but like anything powerful, it also comes with daunting disadvantages, argues Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.
Gopnik describes herself as a "card-carrying member" of the scientific community. She frames her caveat about STEM in an imagined conversation with "a bright young woman in a small town in Wisconsin or Alabama, and that I want to persuade her to become a scientist like me."
"Listen, science is really great...We scientists care about truth and reason and human flourishing. We include people from every country and culture. And our values have transformed the world...Come join us!"
The young woman is persuaded but has a question: "There's just one thing. I love this town. I have a boyfriend who also wants to be a scientist, and I'd like to get married and have a bunch of kids here soon...My friends and family are all nearby, and I'd like my kids to live in my community and take part in...the traditions I grew up with. Can I do that and be a scientist too?"
The "honest answer" says Gopnik, is "the chances are very slim that you'll end up living in your hometown, and your STEM career will mean much moving and separation from your partner. You may not be ready to settle down to start a family until you're nearly forty." Gopnik points out that this isn't a hypothetical conversation; she has heard from colleagues in the Midwest and South who have had this same conversation with students.
We all live in tension between the global and the local, "modernity and tradition, professional opportunity and family ties, the people who leave the place they grew up and the people who stay." (Gopnik, 2018)
If we wonder why young women are not enrolling in STEM majors in college, we need to note Gopnik's caution. Electing a STEM career is much more fraught than simply making a choice about which career offers better salary and benefits.
STEM means separating oneself from those "attachments to particular people and places around them, and those connections underpin commitment, care, trust, and love." (Gopnik, 2018)
What is obscured by how STEM subjects are often taught, the sciences, mathematics, and engineering form an alternative but very powerful community, with its own commitments to care, trust, and love. The challenge for STEM education is create instructional settings that allow both boys and girls to see the full STEM, both its content and its values.
Appendix: STEM Gender Equality Paradox X axis Women Among STEM graduates. Y axis Gender Equality Gap, World Economic Forum. Source: Khazan, 2018)
Gopnik, Alison (2018) When Truth and Reason and No Longer Enough. The Atlantic, February 2018.
Khazan, Olga (2018). The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM. The Atlantic, February 18, 2018.
Sharman, Jon (2017). Algerian police tell pregnant woman to back to her husband after he threw her into a wall, human rights group says. The Independent, Sunday, 23 April 2017.
Stoet, G and David C. Geary (2018). The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education. Psychological Science 2/14/2018
Quinn, Helen and others (2014). A Framework for K-12 Science Education. Washington, DC. The National Academy Press.
World Economic Forum (WEF) (2018). The Global Gender Gap Report 2017. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-gender-gap-report-2017
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.