Why the STEM Gender Gap is Overblown

Source: PBS, Apr 2015

1. Men do not outnumber women in all STEM fields

Gender equity in STEM means that females account for 50 percent of the individuals involved in STEM fields. When we look at the percentage of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded to female students for the last two decades, based on NSF statistics, we find that there is no gender difference in the biosciences, the social sciences, or mathematics, and not much of a difference in the physical sciences. The only STEM fields in which men genuinely outnumber women are computer science and engineering.

2. Women and men are equally capable of doing STEM work

The fact is that men and women score equivalently on tests of raw IQ, with some studies showing women scoring slightly higher. When it comes to mathematics—a core requirement for science and engineering—women score on average only 32 points lower than men on the SAT— a mere 3 percent difference.

While men outnumber women in the “genius” SAT math score range (700-800), the ratio is not that large (1.6 to 1). Men show only an insignificant five-point advantage over women on the quantitative section of the Graduate Record Examination, and they score one point lower than women on the analytic section.

3. Sex-linked interest preferences are not mere artifacts of socialization

Newborn girls prefer to look at faces while newborn boys prefer to look at mechanical stimuli (such as mobiles). When it comes to toys, a consistent finding is that boys (and juvenile male monkeys) strongly prefer to play with mechanical toys over plush toys or dolls, while girls (and female juvenile monkeys) show equivalent interest in the two. (See this for summary of this research.)

These sex-linked preferences emerge in human development long before any significant socialization can have taken place. And they exist in juvenile non-human primates that are not exposed to human gender-specific socialization efforts.

4. Different preferences don’t mean women’s are less important

The hidden assumption underlying the push to eliminate gender gaps in traditionally male-dominated fields is that such fields are intrinsically more important and more valuable to society than fields that traditionally appeal to women.

The bottom line

Women are clearly capable of doing well in STEM fields traditionally dominated by men, and they should not be hindered, bullied, or shamed for pursuing careers in such fields.

But we also should not be ashamed if our interests differ from men’s. If we find certain careers more intrinsically rewarding than men do, that does not mean we have been brainwashed by society or herded into menial fields of labor. Instead, we should demand that greater intrinsic and monetary compensation be awarded to the work we like and want to do.


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