• equality paradox, representing women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics
22 Mar | Athena SWAN | Gender Equality | Women in Science

What the STEM is going on?

The Equality Challenge Unit introduced the Gender Charter Awards (Athena SWAN) in higher education in 2006 as a tool to assess gender equality in STEM. While the initiative seems to be having some impact on the careers of women working in STEM at universities, the question remains…

Photo credit: Eryk Salvaggio

Do women really want to pursue a career in STEM?

Alex Fradera’s recently published article ‘Investigating the “STEM Gender equality paradox” – in fairer societies, fewer women enter science’ (the British Psychological Society) looks at several studies and datasets including the gender inequality measures, UNESCO data on STEM degrees and results from the 2015 OECD educational survey.

The article clearly illustrates that countries that are more ‘gender equal’ have a larger gender gap in STEM careers. Whereas in more ‘repressive cultures, by contrast, young people are liable to prioritise pragmatism – food on the table – over self-actualisation, and as STEM jobs tend to be stable and well-paid, that would encourage more female representation.’

The data demonstrate that in both unequal and fairer society’s boys and girls are equally equipped with the skills and knowledge to pursue a career in STEM, though it seems there are often logical and rational reasoning to follow or forgo a future in the world of STEM.

Researchers Gijsbert Stoet at Leeds Beckett University and David Geary at the University of Missouri found the percentage of women STEM graduates is higher for countries that have more gender inequality. with countries like Tunisia, Albania and Turkey, seeing women making up 35-40% of STEM graduates, whereas in countries with more gender equality, like Switzerland and Norway, the figure is lower at around 20%, similar to Finland.

Fradera points out that ‘Even after taking into account the gender differences in science attitudes and personal strengths, the researchers calculated that, in a society where women’s rational preferences led directly to their level of STEM participation, we should see women take 34% of STEM degrees, while the actual global average is 28% – so other factors unaddressed in this study are clearly leading women away from science roles.’

Let’s not allow this paradox to be misconstrued as confusion between opportunity and outcome.