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If You Want More Women in STEM, Try Discriminating Against Them

Where do women study STEM at high rates? Sweden, where gender equality is a super important cultural value? In the US where we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get more women into tech? Or in the Middle East, where some women can’t (yet) legally drive and are the property of their closest male relative?

If you answered the latter, you’d be right. In a fascinating article about education in the Middle East, Amanda Ripley writes at The Atlantic:

In fact, across the Arab world, women now earn more science degrees on a percentage basis than women in the United States. In Saudi Arabia alone, women earn half of all science degrees. And yet, most of those women are unlikely to put their degrees to paid use for very long.

This is baffling on the most obvious levels. In the West, researchers have long believed that future prospects incentivize students to invest in school. The conventional wisdom is that girls do better in school as women acquire more legal and political rights in society. But many Middle Eastern women do not go on to have long professional careers after graduating; they spend much of their lives working at home as wives and mothers. Fewer than one in every five workers is female in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman.

All throughout the world, girls outperform boys in school. That’s not the shocking part. The shocking part is that we claim that women aren’t studying STEM subjects at school and aren’t entering tech careers in the US because of discrimination and oppression, but in countries where women don’t have a lot of rights (and granted, those rights vary drastically even within Middle Eastern countries), they manage to succeed in STEM in school.

Ripley theorizes that this a result of a lack of freedom that girls have. She quotes 17-year-old Riima Al-Sabbah “If I study five hours a day, it would not be enough. If my brother studies one hour, it would be a miracle.”

Girls don’t have the freedom that boys have, and as a result, their lack of freedom leads them more towards STEM. It’s their lack of options. Ripley writes:

Women and girls, on the other hand, have far fewer choices. They must either score high on the end-of-school exam (which only half of students typically pass) so that they can get admitted to a university and get a reputable job like a teacher or a doctor–or they must marry right away. It is considered dishonorable for a woman to work alongside men in service jobs at restaurants or hotels. “A boy doesn’t need to study hard to have a good job,” [16 year old Nawar] Mousa said. “But a girl needs to work hard to get a respectable job.”

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a professor and division head of Chemical Biology at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden, was surprised when she returned to Sweden and found that there was still an imbalance in gender in the sciences in Sweden. But, what Swedish women do have are choices. They aren’t limited to a few careers or housewifery like they are in many Middle Eastern countries. She blames the problems on gender bias, but that doesn’t explain why countries with overt gender biases have “better” outcomes than Sweden. (The better is in quotes because 1. I’m not convinced that more women in tech is better and 2. more women majoring in STEM doesn’t mean more women climbing the corporate ladder in STEM careers.)

One of my nieces entered college this fall. A brilliant young lady, she excels in both science and art. The pressure on her was to pick a STEM major, like chemical engineering. She reported that “she felt like herself when doing art,” though. My advice? Major in art and minor in something like business or economics. Don’t study STEM because of outside pressure.

In another culture that treats women as less than men (such that female infanticide still happens regularly), India, nevertheless, finds females in 30 percent of programming jobs, compared to 21 percent in the US.

Of course, you can’t compare across cultures on one dimension, but it looks like there is some definite truth to the idea that more opportunities and more choices lead more women to choose careers other than tech. Do we want to take choices away in order to meet our idealized dreams? No one is going to say that.

But, discrimination isn’t the obvious reason why there are fewer women than men in Silicon Valley, so solving discrimination won’t necessarily take us to the goal of a 50/50 representation.

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