Do Women Just Hate STEM? The Gender Gap “Paradox” That Wasn’t

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Remember a few weeks back when I told you about Jordan Peterson, the “personal responsibility” psychology guru who gave himself brain damage by paying Russians to put him in a coma so he could sleep through the withdrawal symptoms because he got addicted to benzos? Yeah, saying it out loud still sounds like we’re in the most fucked up timeline. But anyway, I mentioned that he has always been very anti-political correctness, anti-safe spaces, anti-feminism, anti-anything that attempts to equalize the playing field for straight white dudes and everyone else. 

One prominent point he made, pre-brain damage, was that it’s a lie that women are underrepresented in STEM fields thanks to sexism. He insisted that the real reason was because women naturally, biologically, simply did not like science, technology, engineering, or math. To back this up, he pointed to a study published in 2018 in Psychological Science by psychologists Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary showing that women were less likely to enter STEM fields in countries with better gender equality. In other words, when women have more freedom to choose what they want to go into, as opposed to going into whatever society forces them to go into, they choose non-STEM fields.

Peterson talked about this study all the time, in lecture after lecture he gave around the world. Here he is speaking with Bettina Arndt, an Australian anti-feminist and pedophile-apologist, in which he describes the study and says, “And what do the feminists say about that? Pseudoscience. It’s infuriating to anyone who’s a social scientist and practitioner.”

Oof. Now that quote did not age well, because guess what? That study has been corrected, and it’s worth considering whether that correction is overly kind to the point that really it should have just been retracted.

One of the reasons why it’s good to be cautious when discussing new studies is that no study can be considered truly solid until it’s been replicated. You can swear up and down that your numbers are accurate and your statistical models are appropriate but we don’t really know for sure until some uninvolved third party comes by and does the whole thing again.

This is tricky because often times scientists aren’t rewarded for replicating work. In the “publish or perish” environment of academia, a lot of researchers are desperately looking for novel findings that journals will want to print. Not many journals will publish replications because they’re just not interesting enough, and that is a true shame.

So it’s a relief that researchers at Harvard’s GenderSci Lab took the time to try to replicate this one, considering how much attention the study was getting — not just from Jordan Peterson and his legions of “Men’s Rights Activists,” but from legit mainstream news sources like The Atlantic.

GenderSci’s Sarah Richardson went to work and immediately discovered that the figures were wrong. The original study authors claimed to have used data from UNESCO but then said that, for instance, 40.7% of Algerian women were STEM grads when the UNESCO data showed that 53.55% of STEM grads were women. It turns out, the original researchers used a more complicated figure that they hadn’t bothered to disclose: they took the total percentage of women who graduated with STEM degrees, added it to the total men, and then divided by percent of women. Which is fine, but that’s a brand new way to consider these numbers and they didn’t say they were doing it, let alone why they were doing it. And when the Harvard researchers did that to the other numbers, they still found some that were wrong.

The Harvard researchers point out that an even bigger problem is how the original researchers chose which markers of gender equality to look at and which to ignore. Stoet and Geary used the Global Gender Gap Index, a report from the World Economic Forum that measures quantifiable public data showing how often women are disadvantaged in the areas of health, education, economy and politics. Richardson and her team point out that “the GGGI does not measure opportunity, empowerment, or STEM encouragement. . . . By design, the GGGI is not intended to be used to causally explain outcomes, and gender-equal outcomes cannot be interpreted as providing information on causal context within countries. . . .  In short, the GGGI is neutral with respect to how outcomes of parity are achieved.”

By using this one tool for their study, which was not a tool designed for that purpose, the study itself is called into question. When the Harvard researchers used other standards to measure equality, the initial finding disappeared.

Even if they hadn’t disappeared, the researchers point out that it would tell us nothing about the cause of the correlation. You’d also have to look at countries that share a language, a border, a history, a culture, and you’d have to look at how the numbers change over time as a country improves or exacerbates its gender gap.

In other words: it’s a bit more complicated than that.

It’s even more complicated than what I can discuss in one short video, so if you’re interested in learning more the researchers at Harvard have provided a handy overview of some of the obstacles standing in the way of the study of gender equality, and why the “gender gap paradox” isn’t really so paradoxical after all.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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