The gender-equality paradox is a term coined by Gijsbert Stoet and David C. Geary  which refers to the findings of their study that, counter-intuitively, suggests that countries with a higher level of gender equality tend to have less gender balance in fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), than less equal countries. This research found that while, on average, girls perform better than or equal to boys on STEM measures, the relative gap between the two increases as the gender equality of the country increases. The analysis has been criticized on various points related to the study methodology and conclusions drawn by the authors as discussed below.
Study and findings
The study conducted an analysis of the 2015 results (n=472,242 across 67 nations/regions) of the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), the largest educational survey of its kind, focusing on the results of questions based on science aptitude and attitudes. This was contrasted with the level of gender equality as defined by the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI).
The study had a number of primary findings. These can be summarized as follows:
- Girls performed similarly or better than boys in two out of every three countries, and were more capable of STEM tertiary education in nearly all countries examined.
- More girls entered STEM degrees than graduated.
- The difference between both the performance of girls in PISA was inversely related to the country's GGGI.
- This gap was found to be correlated with the STEM graduation gap, showing that there is a similar gap between the number of girls and boys that enter STEM university programmes compared to those that complete their degrees in more gender-equal countries.
It's important to note that the absolute size of the gap found was not shown to be significant. Rather it is the relative relationship between the two that was found to show an effect. In other words, no relation was found between the total number of girls who entered and completed STEM degrees and the GGGI of the country. Rather, the effect was between the relative difference in number of girls vs. boys who entered and completed STEM degrees, and the GGGI of their country.
Possible causes and criticism
The author suggests two possible, related causes for this unexpected finding. The first relates to expectancy-value theory which suggests that students determine further education choices based on their relative strengths. Expectancy-value theory is often used in explaining the difference in carrier choices between men and women. Thus this difference would be explained by girls choosing subjects that they are relatively stronger at, than STEM fields. In other words, when comparing an individual student's aptitude in various areas, girls feel they are stronger in non-STEM areas. An additional explanation put forth by the author is that this effect is further increased in societies with lower life satisfaction, as defined by the OECD Better Life Index. A cursory statistical analysis confirmed an effect between the two. The rationale here would be that students make more economically motivated decisions when experiencing lower life satisfaction. Thus, in wealthier, and more gender-equal societies, students feel more free to choose study based on their interests, rather than economic motivating factors. Further research is required in order to verify these proposals.
Other studies have argued that these findings may be an incomplete interpretation of the data available. One of the major confounding factors is argued to be differences in the interpretation of what is used to measure gender equality. For example, in a secondary analysis of the same data was done using the implicit-association test (IAT), which measures gender equality by focusing on perceptions associated with each gender, results of Nosek et al.,. No relationship was found between interest in STEM, as reported via PISA, and gender equality according to IAT. Thus GGGI and IAT, two claimed measures of gender equality, give conflicting results. In addition, both stronger implicit gender stereotypes as measured by the IAT as well as explicit stereotypes measured by a simple questionaire in different countries were inversely related to the representation of women in science in those countries, showing an opposite trend to the one reported by Stoet and Geary.
Similarly other studies suggests that GGGI may not fully capture other factors like social expectations in different economic classes and how those, via imbalance in domestic labour, can counter effect other perceived gender equality. Studies like these suggest that there are likely to be additional confounding factors that the original study may not have taken into account.
Other studies have challenged the idea that professed interest is a good measure of intrinsic interest. For example, one study found that the number of women already in a field predicts the stereotypes people have about that field. Related to this is another study which found a relation between the perceived sexism in a specific degree program and the expressed interest in the field amongst girls considering it. Still further studies have shown that there is a significant overlap between parent and teacher expectations around gender and STEM, and what these children express. For example, one study found that parents were less likely to think their daughters would be interested in STEM areas, and that this belief was a strong predictor of later attitudes and efficacy at science. Still further longitudinal studies found a similar effect between a mother's prediction of her daughter's success in STEM and the daughter's later career choices. Similar analyses of the effects of bias in teachers in associating STEM with boys, rather than girls, was shown to also predict future interest in STEM. Many of these longitudinal studies were performed on middle and high schoolers, showing this effect is present before the age where PISA would be taken.
- Gender equality
- Global Gender Gap Report
- Implicit-association test
- Women in STEM fields
- Gender difference
- Stoet, Gijsbert; Geary, David C. (14 February 2018), "The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education" (PDF), Psychological Science, 29 (4): 581–593, doi:10.1177/0956797617741719, PMID 29442575
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