The origin of Silicon Valley’s gender problem

Good start.
Good start.
Image: Reuters
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Considering the ubiquity of science in our everyday lives, from understanding what we eat, to cloud-based computing, to battling global warming and understanding how life-saving drugs work, it’s not surprising that kids want to know more.

According to the latest results of PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, a test the OECD gives to 15-year-olds around the world every three years, about 25% of boys, and 24% of girls, expect to be working in a science-related occupation when they are 30. That’s up from an average of around 20% in 2006. In most places, more kids are considering a career in science than a decade ago.

But the fields that boys and girls expect to be working in are very different.  

More boys say they hope to be engineers, scientists, or architects while more girls hope to work in health. Less than 1% of girls who want to pursue a science career say it will be in information technology.

This gap may offer fodder to Silicon Valley, which argues that part of its gender gap problem is that, historically, too few women study information technology compared to men (a point that was rebutted here). But it also bodes poorly for any future change, considering these kids are the pipeline.

The latest test results show that boys are more interested than girls in physics and chemistry, while girls tend to be more interested in health-related topics, like fighting disease. The test asked students in 57 countries and economies which science topics they preferred; in all but the the Dominican Republic, boys reported being more interested in the science topics of motion and forces, defined as velocity, friction, magnetic and gravitational forces, compared with girls.

In all but two countries, more boys also reported being interested in “energy and its transformation,” including things like conservation and chemical reactions. And in every single country and economy except Taiwan, girls were more likely than boys to report being interested in how science can help prevent disease (in Taiwan the difference was not significant).

Mind the gap

Interest in pursuing a science career is strongly correlated to how well kids do when they study science in school, so improving performance is critical to building the pipeline of talent that Silicon Valley—and everywhere else—will need.

On average, across OECD countries, boys score four points higher than girls in science, a small but statistically significant difference. They outperform girls in 24 countries and economies, with the biggest gap favoring boys in Austria, Costa Rica, and Italy, where the difference between boys’ and girls’ scores is over 15 points.

In Albania, Bulgaria, Finland, Macedonia, Georgia, Jordan, Qatar, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Arab Emirates, girls fare better, with an average score more than 15 points higher than boys’. That’s progress.

But girls are not usually well-represented among the upper ranks: Finland is the only country where there are more girls than boys among top performers in science.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns for the boys: in 28 countries and economies, boys make up a bigger proportion of the lowest-achieving students in the subject.

Countries will have to figure out why, even as girls close the performance gap in science, they are less inclined to pursue jobs in science-related fields. In Germany, Hungary, and Sweden, top-performing boys are still significantly more likely than equally top-performing girls to say that they expect to pursue a career requiring more science training. This will not help close the gender gap in universities, Silicon Valley and beyond.

The report notes that “gender stereotypes about scientists and about work in science-related occupations can discourage some students from engaging further with science.” The image of the anti-social male hacker probably doesn’t help.

Schools are the frontline to discourage these stereotypes and make science broad, interesting and engaging for both genders. “Expanding students’ awareness about the utility of science beyond teaching and research occupations can help build a more inclusive view of science, from which fewer students feel excluded,” the OECD wrote.