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The reason women don’t enter STEM professions revealed

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Conventional wisdom believes three things: Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); this is largely due to sexual discrimination; and the government must redress this imbalance. But multiple studies have discovered a much different reason behind the STEM gender gap.

Most media and academic commentary accepts the theory of “disparate impact”: Any statistical inequality is ipso facto “proof” of discrimination.

When activists call this “one of the most important issues of our time,” opinion-makers nod in agreement. The United Nations General Assembly has passed a resolution on the matter and, in the U.S., the federally funded National Science Foundation has spent $270 million since 2001 “to increase the representation and advancement of women” in STEM. Yet the government has hardly moved the needle on female participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The wrong STEM careers?

To begin with, the STEM gap may more properly be described as an “EM” gap. Canadian women graduate with 59 percent of science and technology degrees; in the U.S., women earn the majority of biology degrees. Women make up only a distinct minority of engineering and mathematical graduates, and workers in computing jobs.

But some unlikely nations have greater female participation in STEM than the West. Women account for nearly half of R&D jobs in Central Asia. They earn 41 percent of STEM degrees in Algeria – more than in the United States – and “women make up the majority of researchers in Azerbaijan, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia and Kuwait,” according to the World Economic Forum.

Expert studies come to the same conclusion: Women are “underrepresented” in STEM professions, because they would rather do something else – and the West gives them the freedom to follow their dreams.

STEM participation: an economic analysis

Two economic terms explain the STEM gender gap: utility and comparative advantage. Utility means how much enjoyment something brings a person. Researchers for the Canadian government found boys “expressing higher self-efficacy, more joy in science, and a broader interest in science than girls.” This influences the selection of a career.

Comparative advantage means a person should specialize in the work he or she can do most productively. But even if someone can do everything better than anyone else – if that person has an absolute advantage – that doesn’t mean the person should try to do it all herself. Economic theory says that person should concentrate on the work that is most productive and trade with others. And that is exactly what is happening in STEM.

It is undeniable that inequality affects STEM qualifications, but females far surpass males. High school girls get higher grades in math and science than boys and attain higher science scores on standardized tests in nations such as Finland. But they score even higher in reading, so they follow their comparative advantage.

Boys also prefer to work in non-STEM fields, but they often lack the skills to do so. Researchers Ming-Te Wang, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, and Sarah Kenny followed 1,490 people for 15 years and found that “mathematically capable individuals who also had high verbal skills were less likely to pursue STEM careers than” those with only “moderate verbal skills.” However, “the group with high math and high verbal ability included more females than males.” Most men would be better served to focus on their comparative advantage in STEM fields, precisely as statistics show they do.

But if that’s the case, why do so many more women pursue STEM careers in areas like Central Asia? Prejudice is indeed at work, but not the way commentators believe.

The truth about gender inequality and female participation in STEM

David Geary, a professor of psychological sciences in the University of Missouri, probed the matter and found a “paradox”: “countries with lower levels of gender equality had relatively more women among STEM graduates than did more gender equal countries.” (Emphases in original.) Females fulfill a higher percentage of high-tech jobs in such countries, because “these occupations are relatively high paying and thus provide the economic security that is less certain in countries that are low in gender equality.”

Simply put, people respond to economic incentives. When nations artificially constrict the labor market, women support themselves and their families by doing the best paying work that is available, even if it is not in their preferred occupation.

The freedom and prosperity of the West gives women greater self-determination. “In more liberal and wealthy countries, personal preferences are more strongly expressed,” Geary told the World Economic Forum. University of Wisconsin gender-studies professor Janet Shibley Hyde agreed, “In wealthy nations, [women] believe that they have the freedom to pursue those alternatives and not worry so much that they pay less.” And economically free nations are more likely to be wealthy and to respect personal agency and other freedoms.

However, Western governments now spend tax dollars to influence young women to study for careers in STEM – and are likely doing those women no favors in the process.

STEM: More harm than good?

A salient, unanswered question is whether these governments are shepherding teenage girls into dead-end careers. “Fifty-eight percent of those [of all sexes] with STEM degrees exit the field after 10 years,” explained Brent Orrell of AEI. Likewise, a 2013 study by four female researchers found that half of all women in STEM fields had left their job within 12 years, more than twice as many as professional women in other fields. Orrell speculated that, while high-tech skills bring a wage premium at the beginning of the career, technology soon passes older workers by. “This appears to be creating a career pathway in which a majority of STEM workers ‘age-out’ of the industry in their late-30s or early-40s with decades of working life ahead, forcing them to find other employment,” he wrote.

Even during their job tenure, women are more likely than men to leave STEM jobs. Canadian women with STEM degrees are more likely to be unemployed than those with non-STEM degrees, according to Statistics Canada. Even in academia, female STEM college professors have lower job satisfaction than male STEM faculty. And unlike other fields, the percentage of women leaving STEM positions does not decrease the more time they spend on the job.

An unintended consequence of government programs goading young women to enter STEM may well be more unhappy, or unemployed, women.

Analyses rooted in “disparate impact” have it precisely backwards: Most people respond to the economic concepts of utility and comparative advantage, because they help them discern the proper use of the unique talent God has placed within every person. When politicians artificially restrict their opportunities, they deny individuals the right to express their personal, creative gifts – impoverishing the workers and the consumers who would have benefited from their work.

Embrace freedom of choice

Women can, and do, make valuable contributions in every discipline. However, if women decide a STEM career is not the best use of their God-given talents, the government should not guide them into professions that will give them less enjoyment (utility). Women are best able to decide how to use their gifts by weighing potential salary, benefits, working conditions, job satisfaction, opportunity cost, and every other factor that goes into career choice. And they should be free to do so, even if their decisions displease the West’s (often male) political leaders.

A free and virtuous society prizes the liberty it gives citizens to choose their own life and career paths, not how well their choices fulfill some central planner’s predetermined outcome. “We need to reject simple-minded reasoning that tries to measure social value in money or body counts,” wrote Mary L.G. Theroux, the senior vice president of the Independent Institute. “A truly equitable society is one in which individuals are free to make their own choices.”

(Photo credit: Argonne National Laboratory. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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