For those who have never heard of it, Hjernevask (“Brainwash” in Norwegian) is a documentary by a Norwegian comedian about gender studies research. “Men’s rights activists” tout it as a gospel of sorts for their movement and use it frequently to justify why they think we shouldn’t push for more female representation in STEM fields. I decided to watch it. Why did I bother? Primarily because I think it’s important to understand where people are sourcing their information and why that information leads to erroneous conclusions. After seeing the episode, I realized why it was so frequently referenced: it seemed close enough to being logical that a person watching without a keen eye could be fooled. It even included a few studies, albeit interpreted in a biased way.
The basic argument of Hjernevask was this: Countries that have the highest gender empowerment measure (GEM) also have some of the lowest rates of women going into STEM fields, so it must be the case that female empowerment “empowers” women to not choose STEM careers because there is something fundamentally incompatible between women and STEM.
…Whew. Evel Knievel couldn’t make that leap.
We all know that correlation does not equal causation. So, a negative correlation between GEM and the rate of women entering STEM fields does not indicate that women are failing to choose STEM careers because of female empowerment. Let’s look at possible confounding factors and see what could play into this correlative effect.
A recent paper explores the self-perceived mathemetical abilities of boys and girls around the world by country. The findings? While girls in countries with low GEM scores had lower self-perceived ability than boys, their self-perceived ability was still much higher than that of girls in countries with high GEM scores! What’s more, in many high-GEM countries, girls’ perceptions of their ability had little to do with their actual performance on an administered exam. This was less true of many low-GEM countries. It seems quite likely, then, that girls in many high-GEM countries do not pursue careers in STEM because they don’t feel confident in their mathematical skills, not because they don’t want those careers.
Perception aside, what do studies tell us about the difference in mathematical skill between boys and girls? Well, many studies indicate that there is little difference in mathematical skill between the sexes. Other studies show that boys and girls excel at different types of math problems, all of which matter in STEM fields.
One may wonder why we see this effect; we might assume that girls in high-GEM countries would be encouraged more in their mathematical skill. Read on.
The paper discussed above provides the following hypothesized explanation for the outcome:
This research suggests that gender egalitarian contexts can encourage girls and boys to express societally approved gender ideals as part of their gender performance. Education in these contexts thus serves not only an instrumental function, but also an expressive function, so that students’ educational choices are thought to reflect important aspects of who they are. From this perspective, educational aspirations can be seen as not simply reflecting the world of possibilities that girls believe are open to them, but also become an arena in which girls perform the gendered identities that they have internalized. Thus, while girls in gender egalitarian contexts may have more opportunities to pursue STEM fields, they may also decide that it is more feminine to be interested in other fields of study, and choose these other fields that they believe more closely match the image that they are seeking to realize.
This is an intriguing explanation. Let’s make one thing clear: there is no reason to believe that countries with high GEM are devoid of gender-specific social norms. GEM is based on things like maternal mortality rate, percentage of women working outside the home, percentage of parliament members who are women, and the percentage of women with a secondary education. These are useful for gaining an overall picture of women’s status in a country. They do not tell us the assumptions the culture makes about very specific women’s issues (like STEM education).
Furthermore, studies conducted in the United States (which is generally considered to be a high-GEM country) show that boys frequently believe they are better at math than girls. This reflects the gender stereotype discussed above; not only do girls have low mathematical self-esteem, but they are also perceived by others as having poor mathematical skill simply by being girls. I cannot make assertions regarding boys’ perceived ability in comparison to girls worldwide, as I don’t know of any such assessment. But certainly, the United States hasn’t yet reached a point when we can say that no gender-specific social norms exist. And depending on regional differences in social norms, they may be another confounding factor which is related to perceived self-ability as described above.
One point Hjernevask makes based on the results of several studies is that girls are often more people-oriented than boys and that this may be at least partially biological. However, Hjernevask errs in concluding that women are just not suited for engineering because of this. Engineering has the potential for significant societal benefit, and viewing engineering from this angle is quite valuable, but it isn’t how engineering is marketed. Notably, marketing is important when students in high-income countries choose fields of study because many options are open to them. To observe the importance of marketing, let’s look at a sub-field of STEM that defies the norm: healthcare. Although many executives in the medical field are still men, the percentage of women in healthcare is much higher than in other STEM fields. And healthcare, unlike other STEM fields, is primarily marketed with societal benefit in mind. A survey conducted by the Journal of Nursing Education found that, unsurprisingly, care for others is a primary reason why many women choose to become nurses.
There is actually an interesting history of women in computer science (my own field) that relates to marketing as well. To summarize, most programmers were female until the 1980’s: the advent of video games, which were marketed for boys. Tinkering with gaming systems provided boys with an introduction to computer science, and the field came to be associated with gaming. While I think it’s great that gaming can spark an interest in computer science, girls are often left out. The solution? Computer science programs should emphasize the social importance of bioinformatics, NLP, and cybersecurity. And, make video games designed for girls too!
It’s probably a combination of all factors discussed here leading to the effect described in Hjernevask. Part of this effect is due to girls in high-GEM countries shying away from STEM careers because STEM careers are not marketed towards them. Another is due to societies’ harmful assumptions about women’s mathematical and technical skill. Finally, girls internalize these harmful assumptions, leading to poor self-perception in mathematics. The last thing we should do is ignore the STEM crisis as the producers of Hjernevask would have us do. We need to address it both by challenging our ideas about gender and STEM and by showing girls why STEM is a great field for making an impact on the world.
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