We constantly hear about the gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and how governments and institutions are continuously trying to decrease it. According to recent statistics, worldwide only 35% of STEM students are female, an alarming percentage that threatens the potential developments of these fields.
Nonetheless, if we look carefully at country-specific percentages, there is a counterintuitive relationship between gender equality and women in STEM. We see that in countries with more gender discrimination, the percentage of women in science is higher. This means that in countries where women are more likely to live under the constant control of men or where their opportunities are fewer only because of their gender, more females can be found in these fields. The most likely explanation is not that they are more inclined towards sciences than other women, this choice is simply dictated by a desire for financial freedom. In these countries, STEM subjects are seen as a secure financial choice compared to more humanistic ones and girls are driven to them to increase their economic stability.
This phenomenon becomes particularly clear when we compare Norway to Algeria. The former has one of the soundest social security systems and is effectively a welfare state, which is a form of government where the state actively supports its citizens in times of need. It is also one of the highest-ranked countries on the Global Gender Gap Index. But still, we see a rather low number of female STEM graduates, only 20%.
Algeria, on the other hand, lags behind enormously in gender equality, yet the percentage of women in scientific careers is a lot higher, nearly 40%.
As stated above, in welfare and economically developed states, citizens can rely on a high level of social support and obtain financial stability also with other careers, even if their wage is relatively lower. In this case, gender equality doesn’t push women away from STEM, it simply allows them to choose otherwise.
Instead, in developing countries, STEM careers are among the most paid and secure ones. When there is no other possibility of self-determination, the only option for females is to choose professions where they can aspire to be more independent.
Given that women in developed countries have the choice to freely determine what they want to do in their lives, some argue that we should stop pursuing gender equality in STEM. But these arguments don’t consider the fact that the number of girls that excel in scientific subjects in high school is still far above the actual number of female graduates in these fields. This means that even in the most gender-equal countries there are still some factors keeping young women from pursuing such careers.
Namely, STEM is still dominated by gender stereotypes, it is labelled as a masculine field and this scares and discourages girls from entering it.
Another reason is the male-dominated culture, which is perpetuated by the majority of men working in it and that can often be less supportive of women.
In addition, the lack of diverse role models plays a crucial role in keeping girls from STEM subjects. We still see limited examples of female scientists or engineers in the media, meaning that there are limited inspirational figures for young female students.
But in the end, feminism and gender equality are not about making everything 50/50. They are about allowing everyone to choose what is best for them, be it mathematics, sociology, or literature. Until that is achieved, there will always be something to fight for.