Why does gender equality not erase segregation in science?


Today, women outnumber men in higher education. However, they remain strongly under-represented in the fields which use mathematics the most. This under-representation contributes to inequalities in the labor market since scientific fields lead on average to better paid jobs .

It is also likely to represent a potential loss of talent in areas of high skill demand such as IT and AI. Finally, we know that algorithms and technologies will increasingly rule our lives. However, these algorithms and technologies are often the reflection of their designers.

The absence of women in the studies concerned therefore poses a real ethical problem. Thus, if we are not careful, an image analysis algorithm will tend to interpret a photo of a woman in a white coat as that of a nurse. Whereas a man in a white coat will be identified as a scientist or a doctor. Not that the algorithm is sexist, but it only analyzes the present in the light of the past and therefore reproduces the biases of this past unless we think of correcting our learning modes upstream.

Much research is attempting to better understand the causes of gender segregation between academic disciplines and occupations. They shed light on the role of social influences, possible discrimination and differences in educational level, themselves being shaped by the socio-cultural environment in which children grow up and learn.

In a recent article published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States), we looked at a particular phenomenon known as the “paradox of gender equality”  : the under-representation of women. in scientific fields (and in particular those linked to mathematics such as physics, computer science or engineering) is stronger in the most developed and most egalitarian countries.

Weight of stereotypes

The paradox can be observed even with gender equality indicators: the countries which have succeeded the most in limiting gender inequalities, particularly in terms of political representation or access to positions of responsibility are those in which the choices girls and boys at school are the most “gendered”.

Some authors, notably researchers Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary, see the paradox as evidence for the existence of fundamental differences of interest (innate understanding) between girls and boys, who are inherently inclined to make study choices. or different trades when they are free to do so.

In developed and egalitarian countries, economic constraints would weigh less on school choices and girls would feel more free to express their “real” preferences. The strong segregation in these countries would therefore be proof that these “real” preferences of girls are very different from those of boys …

In our study, we offer another explanation for the paradox of gender equality: the differences between countries in terms of culturally constructed gender identities (stereotypes). For this, we propose a method to try to measure the stereotypes mainly associating mathematics with men. These stereotypes as we measure them appear to be much stronger in developed and egalitarian countries, including countries with the highest reputation for gender equality, such as Norway, Sweden or Denmark.

Not surprisingly, the stereotypes associating mathematics with men are also strongly associated with the differences in school choice between girls and boys: it is in the countries where these stereotypes are the strongest that, in relation to boys, girls are least oriented towards mathematics courses. Rather rudimentary statistical analyzes ultimately show that stereotypes can explain the paradox of gender equality.

Indeed, when we try to explain the differences in educational choices between girls and boys in a country simultaneously by our measurement of gender stereotypes and measures of development or equality, it is systematically stereotypes that continue to predict school choices, while the relationship between development or equality and school segregation completely disappears. Gender stereotypes could therefore be the hidden variable that explains the paradox.

PISA surveys

Two questions remain unanswered at this stage. First, can we really measure stereotypes and do we do it correctly? Then, if our explanation is valid, why then would there be more gender stereotypes concerning math in more developed or egalitarian countries?

Let’s start with the first question. To measure stereotypes, we use the difference in responses between girls and boys to two specific questions from PISA 2012  : “doing well in math is all about me” and “my parents think math is important to my career”. These questions do not explicitly mention gender and the answers are therefore not biased by concerns of social conformity.

On the other hand, the measurement is obtained by controlling by the level in mathematics which guarantees that the observed differences are not the consequence of differences in level (obviously likely to influence the attitude of the pupils towards mathematics) .

Our approach therefore consists in considering that the systematic differences in answers to the two questions above between girls and boys with the same level in math (and sometimes also the same interest in math in alternative definitions) capture the influence of the norms of kind surrounding.

Of course, this does not constitute proof and there is, moreover, no perfectly validated method for capturing “stereotypes” which remain a concept impossible to fully grasp from an empirical point of view.

Nevertheless, it remains true that it is in developed or egalitarian countries that, compared to boys, girls will give less importance to mathematics than boys, or less consider that they can succeed in this discipline, even though they have the same level and the same declared interest as them. It is in this sense that we consider that there are more stereotypes in developed or egalitarian countries.

Gender ideologies

To try to explain the emergence of these “stereotypes”, which may seem paradoxical, we are mainly referring to a large body of work in sociology and gender studies, initiated in particular by Maria Charles and her co-authors. These works stress the importance of distinguishing between different types of gender ideologies.

It is a question in particular of distinguishing the societies where the ideology of the “male primacy” according to which the man is superior to the woman in general, and the societies where dominate forms of gender essentialism consisting in representing women and men as fundamentally different without necessarily presupposing a hierarchy between them.

It seems that the countries with the best limited development of male primacy ideology developed more than others other more horizontal essentialist gender norms, such as those which associate mathematics more with men.

One possible reason for this is that more developed (or egalitarian) countries have also developed more emancipatory, individualistic and progressive values ​​that place great importance on self-realization and self-expression.

In a context of strong individual freedom, individuals may have to rely on group identities and in particular gender identities to develop their own identity and make their decisions.

This applies in particular to school choices, which in countries where they are less determined by economic constraints (the need to choose a remunerative profession in order to be able to cope) can become a direct expression of the “real me”, leaving then there is room for the development of gender norms concerning these choices .

Thus, the countries which have most eliminated the ideology of male primacy according to which “women are not made to work outside the home or to have positions of responsibility” are also the countries which have developed more “standards”. horizontal essentialists ”regarding the appropriate skills of women and men.

In addition, by analyzing the PISA 2003 and 2012 data, we find that the countries that have made the most progress between 2003 and 2012 in terms of GDP have seen the growth of gender stereotypes concerning mathematics more than others over this period. .

These findings lead to the conclusion that gender segregation in fields of study and occupations will not diminish on its own as societies become more developed and egalitarian. Not because it stems from innate factors, but because it is the product of new forms of social differentiation between women and men which have replaced the ideology of the male primacy. Appropriate policies therefore seem necessary to induce change.

Author Bios: Elyès Jouini is Professor of Mathematics and Clotilde Napp is CNRS Research Director both at Paris Dauphine University – PSL, Georgia Thebault is a PhD candidate in Economics at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) and Thomas Breda is a Researcher at CNRS and economist at the Institute of Public Policy, associate member at the Paris School of Economics