Policymakers should beware of the gender equality paradox

Eight years ago, a Norwegian comedian and father of two daughters set out to understand why, despite his country’s high level of gender equality, studies kept showing girls and women as underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Eight years ago, a Norwegian comedian and father of two daughters set out to understand why, despite his country’s high level of gender equality, studies kept showing girls and women as underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

This was also despite the girls being as good as or better than boys in the subjects.

The inquiry, having mainly been about the Nordic country compared to others, the discrepancy initially came to be known as the Norwegian gender equality paradox.

As a parent of daughters eager for an explanation, it was as personally intriguing as it must have been for the Norwegian. But the issues are neither Norwegian nor African, but human – and which, for now, I will dispense with local comparisons.

Thus, in seeking some earnest answers, I followed the comedian’s quest, whose entire process he compiled into a documentary in an award winning series discussing various issues. (View the documentary here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5LRdW8xw70).

His findings, to which I will revert in a moment, would prove an eye opener for many on gendered motivations in the nature versus nurture debate.

Last week, however, a broader study revisiting the same research subject using an international database of over 470,000 adolescent respondents from 67 countries was published in Psychological Science. The study was conducted by researchers from Leeds Beckett University in the UK and the University of Missouri in the USA.

Likewise dubbed the “gender equality paradox”, it looked at what might motivate girls and boys to choose to study STEM subjects. This is including their overall ability, interest or enjoyment in the subject, and whether science subjects were a personal academic strength.

The researchers were able to show that girls performed similarly to or better than boys in science in two of every three countries and that, in nearly all countries, more girls appeared capable of college-level STEM study than had enrolled.

However, they go on to say that, paradoxically, the sex differences in the magnitude of relative academic strengths and pursuit of STEM degrees rose with increases in national gender equality. To put it more directly, to quote a post-analysis of the study, countries with high levels of gender equality such as Norway, Sweden and Finland registered a lower percentage of women amongst their STEM graduates than in developing countries with a history of socio-culturally repressive tendencies against women such as Algeria or even Albania.

To come back to the Norwegian father, he sought to find the answers from his country’s social scientists who viewed cultural biases against women and girls as solely to blame. They were shown in the documentary adamantly recanting any biological basis in the female underrepresentation in STEM.

Seeking to settle this, he sought further clarification from British researchers, of whom an evolutionary psychologist expressed shock that a social scientist should claim the differences between the sexes as merely in their genitals.

She gave a cogent scientific point: “If women are generally the ones who give birth, lactate, and raise children, it would be very surprising if there wasn’t some kind of psychological orchestration that helped women achieve those tasks – things like empathy, avoiding dangerous confrontations where you may be injured, and avoiding social exclusion by being pushed out of the group.”

In human evolution, it is this mix of biology and culture that ensured survival of their children, and to which every woman is still biologically wired through hormones that necessarily have an effect on the brain.

That’s why, she explained among other examples, women have often chosen to enter nursing, medicine, social work or teaching. In these areas most women feel most comfortable; which is not overlooking the fact that there are big overlaps between the sexes. In this you will still some women thriving in STEM subjects.

The study published in Psychological Science corroborated this view. As one of the researchers involved observed in the post-analysis, “When you lessen economic concerns, as is the case in gender-equal countries, personal preferences are more strongly expressed. In this situation, sex differences in academic strengths and occupational interests more strongly influence college and career choices, creating the STEM paradox we describe.”

The study consistently found that despite extensive efforts to increase participation of women in STEM, levels have remained broadly stable for decades, but that the findings could help target interventions to make them more effective.

And, thus, as the researcher’s colleague added, “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.”


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