How Does Reading Ability Contribute to the Gender Gap in STEM?

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It is widely acknowledged that science, technology, engineering, and maths (collectively known as STEM) have historically been male-dominated fields. Although women are now encouraged to study STEM subjects and progress into a STEM career, there remains a clear gender divide.

But to close the gender gap in STEM, we first need to understand why it exists.

Many factors contribute to this gender gap. For one, STEM has long been perceived as a non-feminine career field. In fact, some reports suggest that in TV and film, male characters are twice as likely to be seen in a STEM role than female characters. High levels of gender-based discrimination are also reported by women in STEM. One example of this can be seen through Sir Tim Hunt’s comments made at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists regarding female presence in the lab. At this conference, he commented that “three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry”. Although his remarks may have been intended as light-hearted, they expressed the deep-rooted stereotypes held about women in STEM, even by those well regarded in their field.

A recent study by Thomas Breda and Clotilde Napp, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has revealed another factor that may be contributing to the under-representation of women in STEM.

The data was collected through the Program of International Student Assessment, a series of tests and careers-based questionnaires conducted every 3 years. The assessment, covering 64 countries, involved 300,000 students of 15 years of age, which was recognised as the time when students begin to start planning for their futures.

While the study did not focus on comparing the academic abilities of boys and girls, it did suggest that boys perform slightly better than girls in maths. Despite this, the difference was not statistically significant, accounting for less than 10% of the gender gap in STEM careers. This gender difference in maths performance is so small that it cannot single-handedly explain the gender gap that is so commonly seen in STEM.

So what could be contributing to the gender gap?

A comparison of students’ maths and reading abilities revealed a significantly larger difference in females compared to males. It turns out that girls are, on average, just as good at maths as boys. However, their reading ability tends to be much greater than their maths ability. Because of this, a trend has been observed in which girls steer towards the subjects that they are better at, such as reading-centred subjects, regardless of how well they perform in maths. As expected, students in the assessment who chose to pursue maths as a subject and future career path were more likely to be male. The study claims that the difference between girls’ relative abilities in maths and reading could explain up to 80% of the gender gap in STEM subjects and careers.

This highlights a potential area that needs addressing in order to encourage women into STEM. Students are often praised for their strongest abilities, which may lead to their other achievements not being recognised and celebrated. While it is natural to follow a career path that highlight your strengths, it is important to realise that being good at maths and being good at reading are not mutually exclusive. Plenty of reading-focused careers involve the analytical and problem-solving abilities that underpin STEM subjects, especially research and management roles. Likewise, reading and communication skills are essential to succeed in STEM.

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