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.
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. 

Presented by

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

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