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Scholars Debate Causes of Women’s Underrepresentation in STEM

Since the publication of a study by Psychological Science in 2018, the reasons as to why women make up a much smaller percentage than men in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields has been widely debated. According to the study, women are underrepresented in STEM, though according to performance records in these fields women are found to perform just as well or better than their male counterparts. However, the study also found that in countries with greater national gender equality, sex differences in the pursuit of careers in STEM were higher than those with lesser equality. Many scholars have debated why that is.

Utilizing the example of Finland which “excels in gender equality,” researchers hypothesized that the gender gap in STEM fields would be narrowed or even eliminated completely. The findings of the study demonstrated the opposite. Finland actually has one of the lowest ratios of women to men in STEM fields, with Sweden and Norway which also boast of high rankings in gender equality. In contrast, Algeria with generally low gender equality, actually has a higher proportion of women in STEM. Some researchers argue that in these situations, “the relatively large sex differences in occupational interests become more clearly expressed in countries where occupational choices are less constrained by the financial incentives to study a STEM subject.” Basically, in countries where women have similar salaries and benefits as men, they are “opting out” of STEM careers.

However, these findings have been challenged by others who have found the calculations made by initial researchers to be incorrect. They hold that this assumption, that women are choosing to occupy fields other than STEM, is yet another example of gender inequality and the selectiveness of narratives being told. New research, according to two Harvard scholars, actually maintains the idea that “the so-called gender equality paradox is a new entry in an old playbook of arguing that biological sex differences, not social inequalities, drive the gender disparities we see in areas such as STEM. But a little digging shows that the paradox is the product not of innate sex differences in STEM interest, but the use of contrived measures and selective data to tell a particular story.”

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