The gen­der gap that wasn’t

National Post (Latest Edition) - - COMMENT - Wil­liam Wat­son

Ama­jor con­cern of ed­u­ca­tion pol­i­cy­mak­ers is the gen­der gap that ( in On­tario) has only 30.3 per cent of women univer­sity un­der­grad­u­ates tak­ing sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics ( or “STEM”) pro­grams while 42.5 per cent of men do. Be­cause STEM jobs typ­i­cally pay bet­ter, you might think this gap con­trib­utes to the widely- de­cried salary gap between men and women who work full time.

Ex­cept it turns out there re­ally isn’t a STEM gap. Not in On­tario, cer­tainly, but more than likely not in most other ju­ris­dic­tions, ei­ther. Women who come out of high school with the math and sci­ence pre­req­ui­sites for STEM pro­grams are only slightly less likely than men to go into such pro­grams. And women are only slightly less likely to get STEM prep in high school, with the re­sult that women are es­sen­tially half (49 per cent, to be ex­act) of the STEM stu­dents in univer­sity.

So where’s the gap? And should we mind the gap ( if we do find one)?

There is in fact a gap. But it may be more sta­tis­ti­cal ar­ti­fact than so­cial prob­lem. The num­bers quoted so far are cor­rect: De­spite women filling half of STEM spa­ces at univer­sity a markedly lower share of women are in such pro­grams than is true for men. How can that be? The an­swer is that among those high- school stu­dents who don’t get STEM prep, many more women t han men nev­er­the­less go on to univer­sity.

All this, though not nec­es­sar­ily the con­clu­sions I draw from it, comes from a re­cent study by econ­o­mists David Card of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia ( Berke­ley) and Abi­gail Payne, for­merly of McMaster now of the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne. They looked at the univer­sity pro­grams and high-school prepa­ra­tion of 400,000 en­trants to On­tario uni­ver­si­ties from 2005 to 2012, as well as de­tailed data on the cour­ses and grades of stu­dents who were in Grade 9 in 2005- 6 as they worked their way to high school grad­u­a­tion. ( You’ve got to hope this very big data was well en­crypted!)

In to­tal in On­tario, 44 per cent of women go to univer­sity ver­sus only 32 per cent of males. As a re­sult, fully 57.5 per cent of un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents are now fe­male. But, ex­ag­ger­at­ing dras­ti­cally to make a point, if there are only three groups of stu­dents — women in STEM, women in non- STEM, and men in STEM — then in such a world it’s sim­ple arith- metic that a smaller per­cent­age of women will be in STEM than men. In re­al­ity, of course, there ac­tu­ally are male un­der­grad­u­ates who don’t pre­pare for or take STEM pro­grams, but dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers of non-STEM men just don’t go to univer­sity.

It’s not clear there is a prob­lem here. Stu­dents are free to choose their own pro­grams. Schools can pro­vide good in­for­ma­tion for them about their choices in terms of univer­sity and em­ploy­ment. But if there is a prob­lem, it’s not that women aren’t in­ter­ested in STEM; it’s that men aren’t in­ter­ested in poetry — or languages or phi­los­o­phy or art or all the other non-STEM sub­jects.

Among Card and Payne’s other re­sults:

There’s only a small dif­fer­ence in STEM prepa­ra­tion between fe­male and male high- school grad­u­ates: 14.5 per cent ver­sus 15.3 per cent.

High-school stu­dents who are STEM- prepped both do go on to univer­sity and do take STEM pro­grams and on both scores the dif­fer­ences between men and women are min­i­mal.

Males and fe­males tend to prep for dif­fer­ent STEM pro­grams. Fe­males are more likely than males to take bi­ol­ogy in high school ( 81.5 per cent ver­sus 51.7) while males are more likely to take physics (62.6 per cent ver­sus 31.9). Card and Payne count nurs­ing as a STEM pro­gram, both be­cause it has typ­i­cal STEM math and sci­ence pre­req­ui­sites and be­cause health sci­ences work­ers make STEM-level salaries af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

Girls have slightly higher high- school marks over­all though more so in non-STEM sub­jects, so the fact that many girls do opt for non- STEM univer­sity pro­grams may re­flect com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage rather than any­thing else.

Prob­a­bly the most pol­icy-rel­e­vant ob­ser­va­tion Card and Payne’s study points to is that lots of high-school stu­dents, es­pe­cially boys, ef­fec­tively opt out of both STEM and univer­sity it­self by choos­ing Grade 9 cour­ses that don’t lead to the Grade 10, 11 and 12 cour­ses that would let them into univer­sity STEM pro­grams. On­tario’s schools might want to let stu­dents de­lay their de­ci­sions by pro­long­ing their math and sci­ence prep by a year or two and by giv­ing them good in­for­ma­tion — if it ex­ists or can be gen­er­ated — about which cour­ses tend to lead to which kinds of jobs. If they can make that in­for­ma­tion avail­able in a way that can grab stu­dents’ at­ten­tion, i. e., via a cell­phone app, that would prob­a­bly work best.

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