Letters: Why Does Gender Equality Mean Fewer Women in STEM?

Readers respond to The Atlantic’s report on a study showing that countries that empower women tend to have more men in STEM fields.

Dylan Martinez / Reuters

The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM

In February, Olga Khazan wrote about a new study that explored a strange paradox: Women in countries with more gender equality are less likely to choose math and science professions.

I am a student at New York University and I am responding to your article “The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM,” by Olga Khazan. While this article brought up many relevant points concerning the Psychological Science study and the low rate of participation of U.S. women in stem, there were multiple key points that it touched on only briefly or completely omitted.

Having grown up with a mother who works in a STEM-related sector of the government, I have learned that the culture surrounding these occupations is infamously a “men’s club.” My mother prided herself on her persuasive negotiating abilities and doggedness. As I got older, I witnessed situations where my mother’s male colleagues—in lower positions than her—were prioritized. I realized that part of her job included being persistent and putting in extra effort just to be recognized among her male colleagues.

Your article touched on the fact that women are statistically not worse at STEM subjects than men, so there must be something else in “liberal societies that’s nudging women away.”

Sadly, you fail to elaborate on what this could be. I would like to suggest one nudging influence given the hostile nature of my mother’s work environment: the male-dominated workforce in stem is unwelcoming and enervating. Working in such an environment requires a draining level of energy just to be heard and respected—it is understandable why STEM positions would be viewed unfavorably by women who have a choice.

Rhiannon Thomas
New York, N.Y.

I am an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in the chemistry department. I am also a woman from one of the countries very low on the [World Economic Forum] gender gap index (Iran, 0.583, 70% women STEM graduates). I strongly believe that the voices of people like me, who have experienced living and pursuing STEM fields in these countries as well as Western countries such as the United States,  are missing from the article.

The article and the published paper it refers to use a Western viewpoint on the possible origins of the gender-gap “paradox.” In this way, they miss key reasons why these countries do better at gender equality when it comes to STEM education, and thus why we in the United States don’t have better gender equality. The analysis in the paper fails to see the agency and humanity of the women who pursue STEM fields in other countries low on the gender gap index. It is important to look into the origins of these differences due to things that these countries are doing right in promoting STEM careers. The assumption that women in these countries’ being stripped of their choices is a cause of the correlation shown in the study is fundamentally flawed.

Zahra Fakhraai
Philadelphia, Pa.