Arguably the most widely accepted claim today in society is that where there is inequality between men and women; the reason is discrimination. So if you look at representations of men and women in certain STEM fields you will find more men than women. The reason for this inequality and disparity, it is generally believed, is because of bias against women. However, this ignores the fact that there are differences between men and women in vocational interests that explain the differences in choices.

 A study, Men and Things, Women and People: A Meta-Analysis of Sex Differences in Interests, conducted the first comprehensive meta-analysis (examination of data from a number of independent studies of the same subject, in order to determine overall trends) of differences in occupational interests between men and women. The study concluded that:

” The present study, however, revealed substantial sex differences in vocational interests. The largest difference between men and women was found along the Things–People dimension, with men gravitated toward things-oriented careers and women gravitated toward people-oriented careers.”

 They also evaluated gender differences particularly in STEM vocational interests and found that men have a moderately higher interest in Science and Mathematics compared to women. The largest difference was found in engineering interest with men having a much higher interest than women. If you took the top 25% of people with the highest interest in engineering the ratio of females to male would be 1: 5. In other words, people with the highest interest in engineering are mostly male.

 Another study, All STEM fields are not created equal: People and things interests explain gender disparities across STEM fields, investigated gender differences in interests within STEM fields. In their study they found that STEM fields are different in terms of how people-orientated or thing-orientated they are. For example Health and Social sciences are more people-orientated fields; while fields such as engineering and physics are more thing-orientated, with the other STEM fields falling in between.

 They found that firstly, the engineering field was found to have the largest gender difference in basic interest – more men than women had an interest in engineering fields. The largest difference where more women had a higher interest than men in the field was Social and Medical sciences. Secondly, they found that the greater the male representation in a discipline the more things-orientated is the discipline; the reverse also held true the greater the female representation in a STEM discipline the higher along the people-orientated scale is the discipline.

 Based on how people-orientated or thing-orientated a STEM field is they were able to predict what the male to female ratio for that STEM discipline is. Surprisingly if you look at the graph, their predictions are not that far off from the actual male to female ratios. This goes to show the importance of vocational interests.

No alt text provided for this image

 Figure 1 – Comparison between actual female participation in STEM fields and predicted female participation in STEM fields based on level of interest in the field. (Source – All STEM fields are not created equal: People and things interests explain gender disparities across STEM fields)

 Studies have also found that sex differences in vocational interests that are present in the general population are also present in individuals with high math abilities (top 3%, 1%, 0.5%, 0.01%); individuals with the ability to succeed in any STEM field. Even among this group of highly gifted individuals, males are more likely than females to rank things-orientated interests first. According to the researchers, “This preference difference between men and women, which is also conspicuous in intellectually precocious samples, undoubtedly contributes to the preponderance of females with profound mathematical gifts who choose to become physicians rather than engineers and physical scientist”. In other words even among females with high math ability to succeed in STEM – they still have vocational interests that are people-orientated rather than thing-orientated.

 One study looked at gender differences in interests across 53 countries and found the same pattern of gender differences in all countries. Countries that were more progressive and egalitarian did not have smaller gender differences in occupational interests. However, there is research that found the more gender egalitarian countries had larger differences in broad science interest between men and women while there were no differences in ability.

The key take away – given that there are clear gender differences in vocational interests why would we expect that if men and women have equal opportunities that it will necessarily lead to men and women making the exact same choices?

Further reading on gender equality

  1. Inconvenient truths on gender inequality in STEM – Part 1: The failure of the discrimination narrative
  2. Inconvenient truths on gender inequality in STEM Part 2 – How gender differences in choices explains disparities
  3. The Gender Equality Paradox in Personality
  4. The Gender Equality Paradox in Occupational Choices -Progressive egalitarian states have higher gender occupational segregation