To know why fewer women choose math and science, you need to know the principle of occupational choice.
Here’s a fascinating take on the STEM imbalance from University Affairs: the major dynamic may not be sexism or any other institutional intent, but the accumulation of simple economic choices at the individual level. And the solution may be more background than foreground. Intriguing, no?
Lorne Carmichael says (paraphrasing liberally): choosing a field to pursue comes down not just to “What will I be successful at?”, but “How successful (or how terrible) am I likely to be at everything else?” Each of us wants to soar and feel talented and fulfilled–yes, I think we all recognize that feeling. But, he says, we also want to avoid feeling overmatched and unskilled. Put the two together, and a career choice is an assessment of both sides of our own coin: our weaknesses as much as our aptitudes.
Hmm… interesting wrinkle. I always like a good figure-ground reversal. Go on…
Enter: Comparative advantage
Take an individual example: a male student who is merely good (not great) at STEM but who assesses that he is even worse at humanities. A guy like this might therefore choose a STEM path as the better of his 2 choices. STEM, we would say, has a comparative advantage in his case. Game this out on a large scale, and you can make a case for male shortcomings in non-STEM fields — not male dominance in STEM — being the cause for the imbalance.
Huh. It certainly makes sense, at least at the sitcom “haha, everyone knows males have limited faculties” kind of level. (I have to coin a name for that…)
So there’s the problem, maybe. Maybe the real issue is that boys just don’t see themselves having success in fields other than STEM, so the STEM becomes their default–the safe choice where they know they can do well enough.
Girls see that they are being crowded out, or they decide they’d rather use their good-enough skills elsewhere than stay in STEM and compete for resources (and time and attention and appreciation? Sexism, maybe, here?). And the result of all these individual choices is a gender gap.
The final ‘graph makes a case for better support for boys in non-STEM fields. If we give enough of them a choice to pursue something else, using other talents, then males will migrate into other areas of the economy and STEM will have more room for girls.