STEM gender gap is not as straightforward as thought, new research reveals

A researcher finds that a nation’s economic development and gender equity do not always equate with more women pursuing science

Cambodia women college students
Students departing class at a public university in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Photo by Lara Perez-Felkner)

When Prof. Lara Perez-Felkner set out to investigate the STEM gender gap in the developing world, she found some surprising results:

In more economically developed countries that tend to be thought of – and are measured as – having higher levels of gender equity, we actually see a wider gender gap in STEM fields.

Prof. Lara Perez-Felkner, PhD, in Angkor, CambodiaAs Associate Professor of Higher Education and Sociology in the Florida State University College of Education, Lara is among the few researchers focusing on this area. Her new research, published in Elsevier’s International Journal of Educational Development, is one of the first papers to examine the post-secondary gender gap in STEM fields in a developing country. Its counterintuitive findings highlight the need for high-quality information on the topic. Lara explained:

There’s an increasing amount of attention being paid to the nuances of the gender gap – why trends are different between disciplines, for example, and why there are differences between countries when we look at international data.

While her team’s findings may come as a surprise to some, Lara noted that they were consistent with others’ reports of their experiences. “I’d heard some anecdotal evidence from colleagues and friends who come from countries such as Pakistan and Iran that this was indeed the case – that it’s not that unusual for the women who go to college to go into science and technology.


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Patterns in Cambodia raise new questions

Lara was intrigued by the trend and investigated further. She chose to focus on Cambodia, partly because of her previous experience working at the Center for Khmer Studies, and because its history made it an interesting case study. “Cambodia has a post-communist history and experienced a genocide that had greatly affected not just the country and the population but also the higher education system, as the educated classes were particularly persecuted,” she said.

There was no prior information about the higher education gender gap for Cambodia, so Lara collected government data, visited universities, and surveyed students to build a picture of education in the country and what the skill differences looked like by gender. The newly published paper uses census data as well as enrollment data of all Cambodian universities. Lara and her team also used gender equity measures – a set of indicators designed to measure situations that are unfavorable to women, so that countries could be compared internationally. These include factors like reading age for women, access to higher education, and age of marriage.

“We found some interesting and intriguing patterns,” she said. “We did find there was a gap in STEM, but that the reasons for it varied according to regional characteristics. Overall, we didn’t find that gender equity positively predicted women’s chances of entering and majoring in fields STEM.” The team’s analyses found that there was either no correlation – it didn’t matter – or that the correlation was somewhat negative.

The team did observe a pattern around economic development and urbanization, which varied widely across the nation. The percentage of women enrolled in health and information technology enrollment was inversely correlated with socioeconomic development and urbanization indicators – a counter-intuitive finding. They also saw wide variation by institution and province in women who were enrolling in STEM at a higher education institution.

“At this stage I couldn’t give a causal explanation, but it did seem that there were different motivations for going to college and going into these fields,” Lara said. In part, that could be down to the need for more detailed information, but there were also specific societal issues that may be a factor,” Lara said. “For example, in some areas, we saw that because barriers to education for women had recently been removed, there was an influx of women of all ages into education.”

Lara also observed that while wealthier areas such as the capital city, Phnom Penh, displayed a gender gap closer to that of the Western world, low-income provincial provinces had a smaller gap.

When I visited more rural campuses, what I saw was that there was such striving around economic opportunity, and such a need to get boys and girls into college, that they would go into the most pragmatic, high return for education value fields that they could, regardless of gender. So the reasons people would go into IT or nursing were very different than in the capital city, with a more established middle class.

Biological vs societal influence – what does the data suggest?

Crucially, Lara pointed out, the wide variance emphasizes the point that the gender gap in STEM is likely driven by societal factors: “If these patterns – where you see more men in math and science – were biologically driven, the pattern would be pretty static and predictable.” Instead,” she said, “the pattern shows a great deal of variation, suggesting that work done on social and behavioral reasons – such as what kind of toys children are introduced to – is part of a trend backed up by evidence.”.

“The fact that we see these differences in the gender gap by country and by class suggest that we should pull away from looking at biological reasons and look at these other explanations,” she added. Being able to focus attention and energy on specific interventions, means being able to foster change in the future based on a solid understanding of what limits opportunities for women. “It’s really exciting to see that in these areas where the opportunities are coming up for the first time, they’re comparatively low in stereotypes, and open to women moving into these areas” that have been traditionally male elsewhere, Lara said.

The question as to whether the STEM gender gap is rooted in biological or behavioral causes has triggered high intensity and high-profile discussions. Lara noted that in a world where people can link to agenda-driven blogs, or simply draw from anecdotal experience, high quality information and peer-reviewed research are extremely important:

In this internet age, we have so much information available to us, and it’s easy to select something you already agree with. We tend to follow what we already believe, and it can take a lot of work to convince us out of our past beliefs, especially when they’re culturally entrenched and reinforced. But with peer reviewed research, especially when there’s a series of studies like ours that use different types of data, different approaches, you can start to establish that there is variation, and that therefore the root causes of the gap are societal.

It’s this information that institutions and industry need to draw on when making decisions about how to act, Lara said:

Whether it’s policy decisions, or decisions around who gets hired for faculty, or staff in science and industry, building guidance through peer reviewed research is essential. It takes time, it takes a lot of effort, but it has a credibility that doesn’t come from, for example, material that just turns up on a Google search.

Read the paper

Lara Perez-Felkner, John Felkner, Samantha Nix, and Melissa Magalhães: The puzzling relationship between international development and gender equity: The case of STEM postsecondary education in Cambodia, International Journal of Educational Development (Jan 2020)

The authors

Prof. Lara Perez-Felkner, PhDDr. Lara Perez-Felkner is an Associate Professor of Higher Education and Sociology in the Higher Education Program in the College of Education at Florida State University. She is also an Affiliated Faculty member in the Department of Sociology, and Senior Research Associate with FSU’s Center for Postsecondary Success.

Her research uses developmental and sociological perspectives to examine how young people’s social contexts influence their college and career outcomes. She focuses on the mechanisms that shape entry into and persistence in institutions and fields in which they have traditionally been underrepresented. In particular, she investigates racial-ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic disparities in post-secondary educational attainment and entry to scientific career fields. Dr. Perez-Felkner edited and authored a New Directions for Institutional Research volume on undergraduate women in STEM and is co-editing another special issue in International Journal for Gender, Science, and Technology.

John Felkner, DDesDr. John Felkner is a faculty member in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning (DURP) and in the Center for Demography & Population Health (CDPH) at Florida State University. He is also an Affiliate of the Population Research Center at the University of Chicago.

HIs current research focuses on socio-ecological resilience of cities and regions in developing countries to the impacts of rapid urbanization and climate change, and he is conducting research on the coupled human-environmental processes driving water sustainability and on the Food-Energy-Water (FEW) nexus in the Mekong region of Southeast Asia (with funding from the National Science Foundation), the environmental impacts of road growth in developing countries, the land use and socio-economic impacts of road investment in East Africa (with The World Bank) and in The Republic of Georgia (with Millennium Challenge Corporation), and on municipal planning strategies for climate change resilience in large cities in developing countries. He recently contributed to the book Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors To The World, published by The World Bank, and has lead-authored publications in The Quarterly Journal of Economics and The American Economic Review, among other publications.

Samantha Nix, PhDDr. Samantha Nix is a specialized faculty member in the Division of Undergraduate Studies at Florida State University. She serves as FSU’s early alert coordinator and supervises study skills tutors in the Academic Center for Excellence. Through her work as early alert coordinator, she works with faculty to identify students who are struggling in their courses and provides outreach and interventions to those groups. Her academic research focuses on the participation of women and underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities in STEM fields. She is particularly interested in how students experience and overcome academic challenges. She has co-authored articles published in Frontiers in PsychologySocial Sciences, Research in Higher EducationThe Journal of Higher Education, and Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.

Melissa Magalhães Melissa Magalhães holds an MA in International Relations from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, where her master’s thesis was a study of socio-environmental policy in Brazil. As an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program student, she contributed to this paper as a research assistant and then continued building expertise as a Center for Khmer Studies Junior Resident Fellow. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with Honors from Florida State University with a dual B.S degree in International Relations and Affairs and Political Science.

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Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier six years ago from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.

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