Women’s gamble in an old boys club

Dr Jessica Lai argues against the belief women are innately different to men in a way that makes them less suitable for STEM

High tech can be a high stakes game. This means those who are more willing and able to take on risk and play that game are more likely to accumulate greater wealth. In her The Detail interview, economist Elaine Liu indicated that girls being socialised to be more risk-averse potentially contributes to the gender pay gap.

The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) story is, however, more complicated.

There are statistically fewer women than men in STEM the world over. This is often explained away with the argument that women are inherently less interested in STEM. Taken a step further, there is also a belief that women are innately (that is, biologically) different to men in a way that makes them less suitable for STEM.

The biological differences between males and females are highly contentious. However, science shows there is no simplistic binary, in terms of either sex or sex-dependent characteristics.

Ultimately, the debate centres around whether females’ observed lower interest in entering STEM fields are biological, socialised or a mixture of the two.

Discussion of the biological–socialised dichotomy matters. If the differences are innate, there do not need to be any social, legal or policy changes, because these do not affect whether females enter into STEM fields. Differences between the sexes can then be used to justify female exclusion from STEM. If, on the other hand, the reason females do not study STEM subjects is social, the gender gap can be addressed.

Not discounting that some differences might be biological, women are without a doubt socialised against studying in STEM fields. The mere fact we talk about whether women are innately less interested and less capable in STEM highlights this.

It should go without saying that we are products of our social, cultural and familial surroundings. This includes the way we view ourselves and our roles. It also includes our outlook on risk-taking.

However, it is not as straightforward as saying girls are socialised to be more risk-averse than boys.

Looking at an international dataset comprising almost 500,000 students from 67 nations or regions, collected by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2015, psychologists Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary showed an “educational-gender-equality paradox”. That is, countries with high levels of gender equality had some of the largest gender gaps in STEM in secondary and tertiary education.

New Zealand had proportionately fewer women among STEM graduates than Vietnam, Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey, for example, although it ranks higher on the gender equality index. This paradox was even more pronounced in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Switzerland. 

This is counterintuitive. Stoet and Geary proposed that women from countries with poor gender equality might be more willing to take risks. They must in order to gain economic security. STEM positions tend to be relatively well paid. Thus, women take the gamble.

In contrast, in countries with more gender equality, such as New Zealand, the risk of entering STEM might be lower, but the gain considered less attractive. Countries that are more gender equal tend to be welfare states to some degree, with strong social security for citizens. Stoet and Geary suggested that women in these countries do not need to take the risk of entering STEM. 

Looking at women in STEM with respect to risk-taking shifts focus once women are actually in STEM.

Attrition rates of women in STEM are high. Of those who stay, few achieve senior positions. This is because there are multiple institutional, structural and organisational biases against women in STEM. Examples are ‘old boys clubs’, women being disproportionately burdened with administrative tasks and ‘soft’ jobs, and a lack of female mentorship.

And, of course, women’s careers are taxed because of their biological role as child bearer and socially assigned role of caretaker.

One could view this as women not being given the same opportunities as men to take risks once they are in STEM.

Overall, the relationship between gender, risk-taking and STEM is intricate. It is too simple to say risk-taking is socialised. It is also determined by economic need and genuine opportunity. All of which must be considered when thinking about social, legal or policy changes related to gender gaps.

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