On the 27th of June, I gave a talk for Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association. On the 11th of July, this talk was covered in the British press, here are some links to it:
Times Education Supplement: Gender equality in Stem would ‘deny human nature’
The Telegraph: ‘Give up’ on gender equality in the sciences at school
The Herald: Claim gender job divide is natural
The problem with these newspaper articles is that they are exaggerating my point and try to make it unnecessary controversial. I wrote a statement in my own words on my webpage about this, and I have copied it here:
Summary of my talk at BESA:
To start with: I am all for gender equality in education! The main point I made in my talk is that it is unlikely that we will be able to get equal numbers of boys and girls in all optional subjects (such as computing or psychology).
The fact is that boys and girls do not perform similarly in British secondary education. Boys fall behind in most subjects in GCSEs and A Levels, except a few, such as mathematics and physics. I think we should try to do something about that. Further, boys and girls differ in how they choose optional GCSE and A Level subjects, with more boys choosing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM), and girls more choosing social sciences, arts, and languages. I think that it will be pretty much impossible to change this.
Despite that there is strong political support (from all big political parties on both the left and right) for getting more girls in STEM subjects, all efforts seem to have failed, though! Computing in the A Levels is a dramatic example of that, with a really small percentage of female students studying this.
We should not really be surprised about this gender difference, though, given that psychologists have repeatedly shown that males and females strongly differ in their vocational interests. Men’s interests are more focused on “things”, and women’s interests are more focused on “people”. This is well summarized in a paper by Rong Su and colleagues. In other words, men and women’s interests vary along the people-things dimension. Of course, there are always exceptions, but this is what you see on average across the world. This gender difference is strong in highly developed and gender equal countries, such as Norway (for a great documentary about this, watch this). It is also interesting that you see that girls do better than boys in mathematics in some countries, but that these are not the countries from which you would expect it, such as Qatar. You can read about this in our open access PLOS paper.
Both societal and biological factors play a role in how people choose subjects and careers, but the role of biological factors is often ignored by many policy makers. We know that even something like exposure to pre-natal hormones (which is different for boys and girls) influences vocational interests in later life. For example, see a paper by Adriene Beltz and colleagues. That said, societal factors certainly also play a role, but how is not well understood. What we see, for example, is that in highly developed countries, there is a more stable mathematics gap between boys and girls than in developing countries; you would not expect this if gender equality policies really have a major influence on this gap (You can read about this in our open access PLOS paper, Figure 4).
I mentioned in the talk that policy makers and activists (with the best intentions) often focus on things we know (to the best of our knowledge) do not work in school children, such as same-sex role models or stereotype type threat interventions (for a good paper on this see that of Colleen Ganley and colleagues). The psychological and biological reality is that it is very hard to change people’s psychological attitudes, and it might be impossible to change the way men and women think about what they would like to study and work as (if you know of good opposite evidence, please let me know). Therefore, in the face of limited resources, we should be cautious in spending money on interventions that will have no effect. Instead of focusing on equal numbers of male and female students in all subjects, I think we should strive to get boys and girls to at least attain similar grades in all subjects (which will be very hard in itself). This would require a major investment in trying to find out what we can do to make sure that boys do not fall behind so much in schools. In my talk I mentioned that one of the factors that might play a role in boy’s poorer performance is the time they spend on video games (there are various papers showing the detrimental effect of this on homework, etc, such as a paper by Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky).
I would like to add that these issues are being taken seriously by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum (the position of Labour and Conservatives is essentially the same). Unfortunately, though, what many people think might help (such as same sex role models to which I responded in Times Higher Education) is often based on intuitions and not on evidence. As a society, we need to make sure that we base our decision making on evidence. We have accepted that we do that for economic decisions about medical treatment, and we need to start doing this for educational interventions as well. There are good British organisations that fund such evidence-based intervention research, such as the Educational Endowment Foundation.
A final point is that I think that we need to respect the interests and talents of individual students. To me, it seems often that some activists find it more important that we have equal numbers of men and women in every job that needs to be done than that people are choosing something they really want to do. That is based on the wrong assumption that those activists think that men and women make those career choices because of the wrong type of socialisation (such as specific colours of toys). They never seem to consider that our vocational interests can at least be partially influenced by our biology. Given that we now accept this for other psychological variables, such as our sexual orientation (which is clearly biologically determined and not changed by education or socialisation), why is it so difficult for some people to accept this for other psychological variables, like vocational interests, as well?
In summary, I am all for equal opportunities. But I just do not think there is good evidence that gender-specific attitudes to career interests and study subjects can be realistically changed by anyone. Some of the important differences between men and women come down to human nature. After all, we are animals evolved due to the brute forces of evolutionary selection, you cannot change that easily, and that is why people are often guided by their unconscious desires which were probably more useful in the stone age than now. In the stone age, it was useful for men to be hunters and women to look after babies, and nature has helped by encoding some of these skills in the hardware of our brain. That still influences how we think today.
This does of course not mean that women in modern society should stick with traditional roles. I am the first to encourage women and men to do whatever they want (I am neither religious nor socially conservative). Of course, today’s schools should not stop boys or girls choosing subjects opposite what the majority of their gender group wants (e.g., girls aiming for computing or boys aiming for psychology, like myself long ago) — quite the opposite, schools need to encourage children to fully fulfil their interests and talents, and not be driven by ideological agendas, whether they are socially conservative or the opposite. But as I pointed out in our PLOS paper, girls are a lot better than boys in mathematics in some of the most socially conservative countries in the world, which just shows that gender equality policies are less effective than people would hope.