Debunking the gender-equality paradox

The supposed paradox that countries with more gender equality see less women in STEM comes down to deep-seated stereotypes and bad science.

Writer and Artist: Lia Bote
Editor: Madeleine Throssell

In 2018, Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary published a paper on a problem they called the Gender-Equality Paradox in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). They presented an apparent negative correlation between gender equality in a country and the representation of women in STEM. Over two years and a 1,113-word correction later, the dangerous implications of this highly contested research shows we have a long way to go in our journey to true diversity in STEM. 

The apparent paradox describes how Western countries, like the US and Norway, have fewer women graduating with STEM degrees than countries like Algeria or Tunisia, despite higher gender equality indices. Economic liberties in Western societies were cited as an explanation, due to women choosing a career based on their individual passions rather than necessity. In contrast, economic pressures in developing countries push young women to enter high-paying STEM careers both for financial stability and to fulfil familial responsibilities. These findings were touted by various media outlets and conservative voices, who suggested that inherent biological differences and competencies explain why women veer away from STEM when they have the choice. 

However, Sarah Richardson and her colleagues at Harvard University have since found that this theory is not only dangerous, it is incorrect. After a year of attempting to replicate the original results, they were met with no success. Stoet and Geary’s study used an original metric for tertiary degree outcomes, which is not commonly used in scientific reports. Even after applying this same metric, Richardson and colleagues obtained results that varied by about 9% when using comprehensive educational figures published by UNESCO. Richardson and colleagues’ adjusted results produced variations in 19 out of the 52 countries considered, and the measured correlation of the relationship was not as strong. 

These were not the only inconsistencies. Using a different measurement index for gender equality, for example, produced a non-significant measure of correlation. Tertiary degree outcome measurements used were from 2012-2015, while only 2015 values were reported for the gender equality index. This therefore makes it inappropriate to suggest that the degree outcomes have a causal relationship with gender equality. In fact, the ultimate scientific fallacy underlying the paper’s thesis, that correlation is the same as causation, also means that the Gender-Equality Paradox theory may not be much of a paradox after all. 

Stoet and Geary’s original findings concluded that women in countries with less gender equality are driven to STEM by necessity and pragmatism, while those in more Western societies choose based on natural affinity and ability. However, this idea reduces the complexity of choice and ignores the societal stereotypes that influence decision-making. Even a spurious correlation between less women in STEM and greater gender equality can be pinned to the implicit biases ingrained in how societies raise children to view jobs and status. In fact, a study on students’ attitudes towards maths in affluent Western societies showed that young girls are already less likely to feel eager about pursuing a STEM career than young boys. A different survey of 300,000 15-year-old students across 64 countries found that stereotypes of men being better at maths were more common in developed, egalitarian countries. This suggests a deep history of learned cultural prejudices: a Western woman’s individual choice to veer away from a STEM career may not necessarily be so individual after all. 

Gender equality is not synonymous with gender-neutrality. Higher equality in aspects like literacy and employment does not equate to equality in societal norms and attitudes. Ignoring this to try and push the narrative that women are somehow less fit or less likely to choose a STEM career by merit of intellectual inferiority risks propagating a scientific field dominated by homogeneity and institutional exclusion. Ultimately, building a scientific community that represents the societies it serves is a crucial step in true scientific development. This is a complex process, with much learning and unlearning of both structural and personal biases needed, but what is science if not a series of complex processes? 

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