Harvard researchers debunk study claiming women are underrepresented in STEM by choice

Andrea Park - Print  | 

A 2018 study describing a "gender equality paradox," by which nations with greater gender equity had fewer women earning degrees in science, tech, engineering and math, is the subject of a recent correction and series of blog posts invalidating the research, BuzzFeed News reports.

The correction was published in December 2019 in Psychological Science, the journal in which the original study was published. It corrects several "oversights," including ambiguity in how the numbers of women in STEM fields were calculated and misrepresented data and descriptions in charts and graphs.

The study used the seeming "paradox" between gender equity initiatives and the numbers of women entering STEM fields to advance a theory that women were simply choosing not to study in those fields, largely ignoring broad evidence of discrimination and other systemic barriers that prevent women from advancing in STEM.

This month, a group of researchers from Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University's GenderSci Lab published a commentary in Psychological Science and an accompanying series of posts on the lab's blog identifying and criticizing errors in the original study's methodology and "likely spurious" conclusions.

"At face value, the gender equality paradox finds that women have just as much potential to be engineers or computer scientists as men — indeed, they are the majority of degree earners in some countries," they wrote in the introductory blog post. "But issues with the gender equality paradox go far beyond logical inconsistencies of men's rights activists in using it to bolster a failing position of women's innate inferiority in STEM fields. There are deep methodological and theoretical issues at work in this field of research."

Those inconsistencies, as outlined in another post, include issues with replicating the study's findings, spurious correlation and a reliance on ecological fallacy, among others.

"When we looked under the surface, this appears to be a case of massaging one's data — selecting for different countries, particular gender measures, particular women-in-STEM measures — to produce the narrative that you want to see," Sarah Richardson, PhD, director of the GenderSci Lab, told BuzzFeed News. "In the end, we do not think that there is a 'gender equality paradox.'"

View the lab's full introductory post, with a list of follow-up articles included, here.

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