Women Obtain Fewer STEM Degrees in Gender Equal Societies

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

David C. Geary, Ph.D. Curators' Distinguished Professor  Thomas Jefferson Fellow Department of Psychological Sciences Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program University of Missouri Columbia, MO 65211-2500

Dr. Geary

David C. Geary, Ph.D.
Curators’ Distinguished Professor
Thomas Jefferson Fellow
Department of Psychological Sciences
Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65211-2500 

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?


Response:   We were interested in international variation in the percentage of women who obtain college degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, focusing on degrees in inorganic areas, such as physics and computer science (topics that do not deal with living things).  There is no sex difference in the life sciences, but there is in these fields. The gap is about 3 to 1 in the U.S. and has been stable for decades.

We wanted to link international variation in these degrees to student factors, including their best subject (e.g., science vs. reading) and their interests in science, as well as to more general factors such as whether the country provided strong economic opportunities and its rating on gender equality measures.

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?

Response:   Women obtained fewer STEM degrees in wealthy, gender-equal countries. In fact, the gap is largest in the most equalitarian countries in the world (e.g., Finland, Sweden). These findings are direct evidence that factors such as stereotypes and implicit bias are not causing the sex differences in STEM, or if they are an influence, it is a small one.

There was a near universal pattern of boys being relatively better at science or mathematics than reading and girls being relatively better at reading. In other words, more boys than girls had their best subject in math or science and more girls than boys had their best subject in reading. Within countries, there were girls with science and math as their best subject and boys with reading as their best subject, but they weren’t as common. This is important because students with math or science as their best subject tend to go into STEM fields and those with reading as their best subject tend to go into non-STEM fields.

Boys had more positive attitudes toward science than girls and were more confident about their ability to do well in science.

The sex differences in academic strengths and attitudes toward science became larger as countries became wealthier and more gender equal. We suspect this is because students in these countries have more choices in their high school and college coursework and thus take more courses in areas associated with their academic strengths.

We identified high achieving students who could do well in a STEM college major and there were just as many girls and boys (15 year olds), that is, there was no sex difference in ability.

         Based on academic ability, we’d expect equal numbers of women and men in STEM, and not the 28% found worldwide.  When we adjusted for interest in science, we estimated there should be 41% women in STEM, and 34% once we adjusted for academic strengths. The latter is much closer to the actual value of 28% but there is still a gap.  Based on prior studies, we suspect that the gap would close even more had we had better tests of personal and occupational interests. One study, in fact, found that the gap was eliminated in the U.S. once academic strengths and a variety of personal and occupational interests were taken into account.

Finally, we found that life satisfaction concerns – theee are related in part to economic concerns – contributed to the higher percentage of women in STEM in less wealthy and less egalitarian countries (e.g., Algeria).  

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The sex differences in STEM fields are related to the sex differences in interests and academic strengths and these get larger in wealthy, egalitarian countries because people are better able to express their interests and have many more economic choices beyond STEM fields.

That said, there does appear to be some loss, whereby girls with strengths in science or mathematics and interests in these areas are less likely to pursue STEM careers than boys with the same profile. Interventions focused on these girls might help to increase the number of women in STEM.  

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: More basic cognitive studies on why boys are relatively better at math or science than reading and why girls are relatively better at reading than math or science would be interesting.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: The pattern of larger sex differences in egalitarian countries is found for other areas, including some cognitive abilities and personality, suggesting these countries enable a more complete expression of underlying sex differences than do more restrictive countries.


Gijsbert Stoet, David C. Geary. The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education. Psychological Science, 2018; 095679761774171 DOI: 10.1177/0956797617741719

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