STEM, self-efficacy, and sport

William Foley takes a close look at the link between male and female participation in STEM subjects and sports.

In the past, sport was traditionally seen as the domain of men. Even today, there is a gender discrepancy in participation and intensity: men are more likely to play sport, and more likely to devote significant energies to it. This difference is neither good nor natural. But in order to consider why it’s not the former, we should first consider why it’s not the latter. And taking a look at gender differences in the link between performance and interest more generally might be helpful in that regard.

A recent academic study by Stoet and Geary (“The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education”) yielded an interesting finding: the more gender egalitarian a country, the fewer female STEM graduates it had. Using data from a 2015 survey of 67 nations and regions, the authors found that countries like Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and Ireland – which ranked highly on the gender equality scale – had a substantially lower number of female STEM graduates (between 20 and 25%, roughly) than the least egalitarian countries in the sample – the UAE, Tunisia, Algeria, and Turkey – all of which had proportions of female STEM graduates ranging from 36% to 41% of total STEM graduates.

So, gender equality is negatively correlated with the number of women graduating from STEM courses. It’s a statistic to make the partisans of the alt-right drool. The deployment of seemingly convincing factoids, à la Peterson, is a feature of their more sophisticated pseudo-scientific accounts, and it would not be surprising if such evidence (for which there is precedent) has already found its way into various half-baked theories metastasising in internet cesspits. But not so fast – the negative correlation doesn’t necessarily entail that women have lower aptitudes for STEM subjects. In fact, Stoet and Geary’s study demonstrates that this is not the case. When testing for scientific literacy, girls outperformed boys in 28% of countries, and boys did better than girls in 32%, with both performing equally well in the other 40%. Moreover, there was no correlation between gender equality and the gap in scientific literacy. In other words, it wasn’t the case that girls performed worse than boys in more gender egalitarian countries, so differences in ability can’t be driving the negative relationship between equality and the choice to enroll in STEM courses.

So what explains the difference? Stoet and Geary argue that the explanation lies in the personal strengths of the individual student. A student might score very highly in science, reading, and mathematics literacy. But they are more likely to pursue a career in the area in which they score the highest. The same logic applies to a student who scores below average in these areas – they will probably want to pursue what they do least badly in. This concept is termed “comparative advantage” within economics, and refers to the idea that countries will tend to specialise in the good or service which they produce with the greatest efficiency, regardless of whether they have an absolute advantage or disadvantage in production compared to other countries. So people, like national economies, prefer to do what they do best (in theory). This process is illustrated quite well in the case of Finland. There, according to the study, girls do better than boys in science, maths, and reading. But they do relatively best at reading, so, on average, we can expect that girls will be more likely to choose to study humanities, social sciences, health sciences, and so on, in that country (and they do).

The pattern is born out more broadly. Across countries, according to Stoet and Geary, 51% of girls performed better at reading than they did in science or mathematics. 24% performed best in science, and 25% in maths. For boys, the scores were 20%, 32%, and 48% respectively. So although boys don’t do better than girls on average when it comes to science, they do do better at science compared to other areas, and so are more likely to self-select into scientifically-oriented fields of study and work.

What explains the discrepancy? A rightwinger might theorise that the explanation lies in natural psychological processes: girls are more interested in people, guys are more interested in things. This is indeed, in simplified terms, the approach of the former google worker James Damore, who was fired after he wrote a memo arguing that the gender discrepancy in employment in Google and the ICT industry was due to inherent biological differences rather than discrimination. A leftwinger, however, might argue that the discrepancy is due to socially constructed processes of differentiation.

From an early age, for whatever reason, different subjects are coded as male and female, and girls are encourage to pursue particular types of interests. We might then claim that, intuitively, people do better at the sort of things that they believe they should be better at. Moreover, they are more likely to spend more time and attention on the things they believe they are best at, therefore reinforcing this effect. If this were true, what type of patterns would we expect to see? Probably, we would expect that girls, on average, report lower self-efficacy (subjective appraisal of own ability) at science subjects and, more crucially, that self-efficacy is only weakly correlated with objective performance. And this is exactly what Stoet and Geary find. In fact, in almost half the countries examined in the study, boys overestimated their scientific self-efficacy and deviated significantly from girls. So, we might even modify our definition of comparative advantage: people prefer to do what they think they do best.

Interestingly, the gap in self-efficacy is greater in more gender egalitarian countries. More explanation is needed then, from the point of view of the “socially-constructed differences” camp (Stoet and Geary have their own theories in this regard). Here, however, I return to the topic of sport. I chose to focus most of this article on a paper about science literacy because it illustrates quite clearly the relations between self-efficacy, choice, and the self-reinforcing processes which connect the two. Nevertheless, there is plenty of research that shows that girls/women also report lower self-efficacy when it comes to sport than men (see Chase, 2001, “Children’s Self-Efficacy, Motivational Intentions, and Attributions in Physical Education and Sport”). And, to spell out a position implicit in the argument above, self-efficacy is not rigidly tied to objective efficacy. It is likely to be influenced by socially ingrained and constructed discourses and viewpoints located in the field of “common sense” and other such unreflective, and supposedly intuitive social stocks of knowledge.

And we do live in a world in which sport, and competitive physical activity generally, is still coded as a male interest. Although girls may be facilitated and encouraged to partake in sport to a greater degree than in the past, it is still not likely to be seen as a “natural” passtime in the same way as it is for boys. This is a prejudice that is reinforced in culture, media, and even scholarship schemes and funding structures. In fact, there may even be a link back to the STEM issue. Lower participation in sport, may lead to lesser development of abstract spatial awareness skills which are necessary for disciplines such as engineering, physics, and architecture.

It would be interesting to consider what policies and programmes might overthrow these social constructions. It may well turn out to be a question of culture, and culture may turn out to be more deeply embedded than socialists would like to think. If so, this is also bad news for the right, who increasingly seem to think that politics is downstream from it. But it’s easier to redirect the course of a small tributary than a roaring river. And if the deeper parts of culture are more like the latter then a really radical scheme of damming, diversion, and irrigation will be needed.

William Foley

William Foley studies Philosophy and Economics. He is deputy editor of Trinity News.