The far-reaching impact of the gender reading gap

 It’s not why women don’t like STEM subjects. It’s about the gender reading gap and why boys don’t excel or are slower at reading.  

There has been much discussion around why women don’t go into engineering or tech industries and functions. But one irony of the gender equality paradox is that women who live in countries with higher levels of gender equality are less likely to take degrees in STEM subjects than those who live in countries with lower levels of gender parity. Research reveals two interesting gender surprises.

  1. Women in countries where gender parity is low are attracted to STEM courses and careers.
  2. Girls are equally good at boys in science and maths in school. The real gender gap is in reading skills.

The question has to be asked – why is that?

Gender reading gap

The gender paradox

The research comes from Leeds Beckett School of Social Science and the University of Missouri. It suggests that countries with high levels of gender equality, such as Finland, Norway or Sweden, have a lower number of women graduating in STEM subjects. Countries with reduced gender equality often have lower levels of social support. This makes the more highly-paid STEM careers more appealing. Affluent economies allow women a wider choice of career where they tend to select careers based on preference, rather than financial factors. In countries with reduced economic and employment opportunities, STEM careers seem more attractive to women.

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Research suggests that countries with economies which might be considered as emerging at best, or even third world, tell a different story.

  • For Algeria, 41 percent of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math are female. Yet employment discrimination and abuse against women is widespread.
  • In Saudi Arabia the number of women studying engineering is on the rise, despite discriminatory and even segregated workplaces.
  • United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar were the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on maths problems than girls are.  Research suggests that in these countries this is seen as the fastest route to financial independence.

In the US only 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women. In the UK this drops to 14% and in engineering the figure is 11%. These are two countries where women have freedom of choice and are encouraged to reach their potential.

Asking the wrong question

We have always assumed that girls were not motivated to study STEM subjects because their performance was weaker or interest reduced. Yet the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, discounted aptitude playing a role.  The results from 67 countries and regions indicates that in most countries girls perform as well as, or better than, boys for science. Furthermore, in almost all countries the aptitude of the girls equalled the requirements for entry into further education.

However, in relative terms the subject that girls excelled in was reading, and for boys it was science.

So looking at this another way; the issue is not that girls are under performing in science, but rather that boys are weaker in reading than the girls.

In almost all the countries, except Romania and Lebanon, the highest scoring subjects for boys were sciences, and for the girls it was reading. Across all countries, 24% of girls’ best subject was science, 25% of girls’ strength was maths, but 51% excelled in reading. For boys, the percentages were 38% for science, 42% for maths, and 20% for reading. In countries where students are encouraged to study in the subjects which will produce their best results, this will also play a part.

Fish where there are fish

Previous research has produced gender coded stereotypes. It usually suggested that women are inherently weaker in STEM subjects or they don’t like them. Now it seems that’s not the case at all. Their abilities are potentially the same as the men. However their early high performance in reading channels them into areas of relative strength in more gender equal countries.

So for organisations wanting to hire more women they should consider checking out liberal arts courses where women study in large numbers. We know now that many will have a basic ability which is not being tapped into. Why continue to look at STEM courses for candidates, bleating all the time that women can’t be found.

It’s time to rethink hiring strategies.

3Plus can help you attract and hire high-potential women, with our help in Executive Search and Diversity Recruitment.

If you feel passionate about gender balance and topical issues impacting women in the workplace 3Plus would be delighted to publish your work. Don't wait - send it in

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