There Are Only 3 Countries Where Girls Feel More Comfortable With Math Than Boys

How women around the world are faring on wages, executive slots, and STEM careers.
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Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters

Saturday is International Women's Day, which arose from an early-20th-century socialist suffrage movement and has since become a national holiday in about two dozen countries—in some of them, a holiday "for women only." Take that, HR guidelines!

The day is not a big deal in the U.S. (the whole socialism thing probably wasn't great for its American branding), but it does present an opportunity to evaluate how various countries are doing by their female workers. 

Poster for Women's Day on March 8, 1914 (Karl Maria Stadler)

What quickly becomes clear is that there are countless ways to succeed on gender equality—whether it's implementing policies that encourage women to choose higher-paying professions, allowing employees more workplace flexibility, or developing a culture that encourages equity in housework. And when the data is broken down by each metric, some surprising leaders emerge, like Mexico and Poland.

So here's a wide-ranging look at gender parity in the workplace, according to recently updated data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (The OECD collects data on a diverse group of high-income countries, meaning Northern Europe doesn't go up against, say, the Central African Republic).

You can click the caption of each chart to get to a larger, interactive version.

Math skills

Math-oriented professions tend to be higher-paying, so occasionally economists look at students' early subject-matter proclivities to see if there's something deterring women from pursuing careers as, say, engineers and actuaries. To evaluate students, the OECD uses the Program for International Student Assessment, a test that measures 15-year-olds' math, reading, and science abilities.

When it comes to math, the picture is grim: Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on math problems than girls are. In all of the other countries, the girls are more likely to say they feel "helpless while performing a math problem."

Students responding that they feel helpless when doing math problems. (OECD)

On the actual PISA math test, though, girls only scored about 2 percent, on average, lower than boys did:

PISA math test score (OECD)

So it's clear that around the world, girls are better at math than they think they are.

Computer-science degrees

Mexico has the highest ratio of women awarded computer-science tertiary degrees—roughly the equivalent of a B.A. or higher—followed by South Africa.

Percent of tertiary computer-science degrees awarded to women. (OECD)

Here, there seems to be no pattern to the rankings. In more conservative countries like Mexico and Turkey, substantial numbers of female coders are entering the workforce. Meanwhile, in countries that we usually think of as more progressive, like Belgium and Switzerland, women are far more likely to go into fields like education, health, and the humanities.

Of course, those traditionally female subjects are also more popular than computing is among Mexican women. But it could be that in fast-changing economies (such as Mexico and South Africa), women are entering computer science at higher rates in an attempt to maximize their earning potential. Or it could be that in some cultures, computer science is simply not viewed as a masculine field—a factor that researchers have observed in countries with more equitable STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) balances. 

Meanwhile, women in every country but Japan are far more likely than men to get advanced degrees in any field:

Graduation rates in tertiary education. (OECD)

Paid work and unpaid work

Women spend less time on paid work than men do in every country:

OECD

But it's important to note that "working less" is not necessarily a bad thing. In places like the Netherlands, for example, women working part-time has become an ingrained cultural practice.

"They work half days, meet their friends for coffee at 2 p.m., and pity their male colleagues who are stuck in the office all day," wrote Jessica Olien, an American who lived in the Netherlands, in Slate.

But something that is a problem is that in nearly every country, women do more unpaid work than men, such as childcare and chores:

OECD

Applause to the Norwegian men for coming closest to doing their fair share at home. Apparently what the fox really does say is "Yes, honey, I'll be happy to Swiffer the living room." But in countries like Turkey, India, and Japan, "the second shift" is real—and it's a long one.

Wages

The gender wage gap in the U.S., when you control for things like hours worked and type of job, is about 9 cents. The OECD doesn't get down to that level—it simply compares the wages of all male workers with those of all female workers. From the looks of it, women make the least compared with men in South Korea, Estonia, Japan, and Israel. The Netherlands also has a big gap, showcasing the major downside of all those women working part-time. Ireland and Belgium look most equitable on this front.

Size of the gender wage gap, by country and latest year with available data. (OECD)

Female executives

Norway also leads the OECD in the percentage of female board members. That's because the country enacted a law in 2003 requiring public companies' boards to be at least 40 percent female.

The share of women on the boards of listed companies by country, 2009. (OECD)

The Norwegian law is fairly draconian: Companies must either comply or be shut down. As a result, though, the boards have also become more professional —no more old boys' networks—and more diverse, since companies often have to look outside Norway's borders to find enough women to meet the minimum. 

In every country, though, women are much less likely to be senior managers than men are:

OECD

Wherever you go, it seems, corner offices are still dominated by les hommes, mehed, hombres, and muži

***

To close some of these gaps, the OECD recommends addressing "stereotyping" in order to engage more girls in math and science, expanding affordable child care, and ensuring greater access to finance for female entrepreneurs.

That's a start, but since countries' gender successes vary so much, it's clear that no single solution is going to fit every case.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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