The Paradox of Gender Equality and the Advancement of Women in STEM: A Comparison of Developed and Developing Countries

This article explores the socio-economic factors and implications behind evidence that developing countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa are outperforming advanced, liberal democratic countries in North America and Scandinavia in the advancement of women in STEM.  

In western societies, there are numerous campaigns devoted to encouraging women to pursue an education and career in science, technology, engineering, and math. Despite such efforts, studies show that the number of women in STEM is expected to decline from the current rate of 24% of the workforce to 22% by the year 2025 in countries such as the United States, Finland, and Norway. This notion can be difficult to reconcile in such developed countries who actively engage in policies promoting gender equality and continuously score high on the World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Report in key areas including education, health, and political empowerment. Moreover, there is a paradox in light of evidence demonstrating that women are more likely to pursue STEM careers in countries with less gender equality. Data has revealed that Middle Eastern and North African countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have the highest percentage of women amongst STEM graduates globally. While women account for between 20%-25% of STEM graduates in advanced countries, they comprise of 30%-40% of STEM graduates throughout noted developing countries.

While women in western societies are more likely than men to attend university, they are far less likely to graduate with a degree in STEM. Studies have verified that both genders have similar abilities in science literacy, yet western women continue to make alternative choices in terms of a career path. Despite knowing the benefits of pursuing a career in STEM given the current state of the labour market, women are more likely to pursue other paths that correspond with their personal interests. Many indicators point to claims of discrimination or biased gender norms in workplace cultures to explain such choices, which have resulted in low rates of participation amongst women in the STEM field. However, this analysis may be oversimplified.   

In developing countries where harsher and more uncertain economic conditions are faced, women are more likely to make a logical decision to pursue the economic independence that comes from high paying STEM jobs. The economic benefits of such careers can be directly correlated to one’s ability to pay medical bills or support their children’s education, which can be taken for granted in developed countries (such as Norway or Sweden) with strong social welfare systems. Meanwhile, women in wealthy, western nations are likely to have more economic security and freedom, hence they are given more latitude to act on interests allowing them to explore individuality in their education and career choices. Therefore, it can be concluded that gender equality does not discourage girls and women from pursuing careers in science, but rather allows them to pursue other strengths and interests.  

Despite steady progress that has been made in recent years, more can and must be done to recruit and retain women in the STEM field in both developed and developing nations. In nations such as Turkey and Qatar, there continues to be limited pathways for women to pursue technical occupations. Women are more likely to study natural sciences and become teachers, which is a career deemed to be ‘more suitable’ for women than working as an engineer. Regardless of notable cultural differences in Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East, women in STEM face many of the stereotypes typically associated with women in western workforces. Women continue to face lower wages, restrictions in education enrollment in STEM courses, and pressure to give up their careers to focus on family life through workplace discrimination practices. While pathways to STEM careers are more accessible to western women, emphasis must be placed on strategies to attract women who excel in maths and sciences by sparking interest at a young age and sustaining their engagement in STEM throughout university.   

This comparison between developed and developing countries proves that a more comprehensive consideration of factors that draw women toward or away from careers in STEM must be considered. A woman’s decision to join the STEM field is squarely rooted in her sense of identity, in addition to her interests or need for economic security. Because of the perception and reality that STEM organizations are male-dominated, women are forced to negotiate whether the meaning of gender should stress the sameness or difference from men, as they embark on long-term career objectives. The complexity of a women’s interpretation of self-identity in relation to the cultural identity of STEM organizations can often override rational arguments for the pursuit of a career in STEM, particularly in western nations. Therefore, personal views and public narratives surrounding gender equality in developed countries ultimately make a woman’s choice to forge a career in STEM more complex and difficult to navigate, as opposed to purely empowering.