A new study explores a strange paradox: In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions.


Though their numbers are growing, only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female. The gender gap only grows worse from there: Just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women. This is in the United States, where many college men proudly describe themselves as “male feminists” and girls are taught they can be anything they want to be.


(译注:AP computer science:Advanced Placement computer science class offered to high school students in which you learn how to create computer programs.一教授高中生如何创建计算机程序的课程。 )

Meanwhile, in Algeria, 41 percent of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—or “stem,” as it’s known—are female. There, employment discrimination against women is rife and women are often pressured to make amends with their abusive husbands.


According to a report I covered a few years ago, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on math problems than girls are. In all of the other nations surveyed, girls were more likely to say they feel “helpless while performing a math problem.”

根据我几年前的报道,约旦,卡塔尔和阿拉伯联合酋长国是仅有的三个男生在做数学题的时候比女生感觉更吃力的国家。在其他所有接受调查的国家中,女孩更倾向于说她们 “在解数学题时感到无助”。

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?


A scatterplot of countries based on their number of female STEM graduates and their Global Gender Gap Index (y-axis), a measure of opportunities for women (Psychological Science

According to a new paper published in Psychological Science by the psychologists Gijsbert Stoet, at Leeds Beckett University, and David Geary, at the University of Missouri, it could have to do with the fact that women in countries with higher gender inequality are simply seeking the clearest possible path to financial freedom. And often, that path leads through stem professions.

根据利兹贝克特大学的心理学家Gijsbert Stoet和密苏里大学的David Geary在《心理科学》上发表的一篇新论文,可能性别不平等较严重的国家中的女性只追求最明确地通向经济自由的职业道路。通常,这条路指向理工相关职业。

The issue doesn’t appear to be girls’ aptitude for stem professions. In looking at test scores across 67 countries and regions, Stoet and Geary 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, in almost all the countries—all except Romania and Lebanon—boys’ best subject was science, and girls’ was reading. (That is, even if an average girl was as good as an average boy at science, she was still likely to be even better at reading.) Across all countries, 24 percent of girls had science as their best subject, 25 percent of girls’ strength was math, and 51 percent excelled in reading. For boys, the percentages were 38 for science, 42 for math, and 20 for reading. And the more gender-equal the country, as measured by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, the larger this gap between boys and girls in having science as their best subject. (The most gender-equal countries are the typical snowy utopias you hear about, like Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates rank among the least equal, according to the Global Gender Gap Index.)

但是他们和自身对比起来,在所有的国家 - 除去罗马尼亚和黎巴嫩- 男孩最擅长的科目是科学,女孩的是阅读。 (就是说,即使一个普通女孩和一个普通男孩在科学上一样好,她的阅读上仍可能更好。)在所有国家中,24%的女孩以科学为最强项,有25%的女孩最强项为数学,51%的最强项为阅读。对男孩来说,最强项为科学的占38%,数学占42%,阅读占20%。根据世界经济论坛的全球性别差距指数衡量,一个国家的性别平等程度越高,男女生之间以科学为其最强项的这类差距越大。(根据全球性别差距指数,性别最平等的国家就是你听到的那些完美典型,如瑞典、芬兰和冰岛。土耳其和阿联酋则位列末尾。)

The gap in reading “is related at least in part to girls’ advantages in basic language abilities and a generally greater interest in reading; they read more and thus practice more,” Geary told me.

Geary告诉我: 阅读的这份差距“至少部分与女孩在基本语言能力方面的优势以及对阅读的普遍兴趣有关;她们读得更多,练习得更多”

What’s more, the countries that minted the most female college graduates in fields like science, engineering, or math were also some of the least gender-equal countries. They posit that this is because the countries that empower women also empower them, indirectly, to pick whatever career they’d enjoy most and be best at.


“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.


When the study authors looked at the “overall life satisfaction” rating of each country—a measure of economic opportunity and hardship—they found that gender-equal countries had more life satisfaction. The life-satisfaction ranking explained 35 percent of the variation between gender equality and women’s participation in stem. That correlation echoes past research showing that the genders are actually more segregated by field of study in more economically developed places.


The upshot of this research is neither especially feminist nor especially sad: It’s not that gender equality discourages girls from pursuing science. It’s that it allows them not to if they’re not interested.


The findings will likely seem controversial, since the idea that men and women have different inherent abilities is often used as a reason, by some, to argue we should forget trying to recruit more women into the stem fields. But, as the University of Wisconsin gender-studies professor Janet Shibley Hyde, who wasn’t involved with the study, put it to me, that’s not quite what’s happening here.

这些发现可能会引起争议,因为男性和女性具有不同的内在能力,这个想法经常被一些人用作理由去解释放弃招募更多的女性进入STEM领域。但是,没有参与这项研究的威斯康星大学性别研究教授Janet Shibley Hyde,评论到:事实不是这样的。

“Some would say that the gender stem gap occurs not because girls can’t do science, but because they have other alternatives, based on their strengths in verbal skills,” she said. “In wealthy nations, they believe that they have the freedom to pursue those alternatives and not worry so much that they pay less.”


Instead, 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. The women-in-stem advocates could, for starters, focus their efforts on those would-be stem stars.


Then again, it could just be that, feeling financially secure and on equal footing with men, some women will always choose to follow their passions, rather than whatever labor economists recommend. And those passions don’t always lie within science.



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