The so-called “gender-equality paradox” is the fact that the more a country is egalitarian and developed, the less its female inhabitants choose careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).
This paradox is seen by some scholars as further evidence of deeply rooted or intrinsic gender differences in disciplinary preference: women are less interested in STEM subjects, a fact that is more evident in countries with fewer constraints (particularly economic constraints) that might otherwise prohibit women from following their inclination.
However, a Women and Science Chair research team consisting of Thomas Breda, Elyès Jouini, Clotilde Napp, and Georgia Thebault, show that this paradox can actually be better explained by national differences in essentialist gender norms and stereotypes regarding aptitudes for math and appropriate career choices. In their article, they conduct a national-level study of the prevalence and internalization of the stereotype that “math is not for girls.” The study involves an assessment of individual-level data on the attitudes about math of 300,000 15-year-olds, both male and female, in 64 countries.
It is clear that the stereotype associating math with men is stronger in more egalitarian and developed countries. This stereotype is also closely associated with female underrepresentation in math-intensive fields and can wholly explain the gender-equality paradox. What is more, analysis shows that the relationship between the underrepresentation of women and the degree to which a country is developed becomes statistically irrelevant when we control for stereotypes. On the other hand, the relationship between the underrepresentation of women and stereotypes does not change when we control for the degree to which a country is developed. Which suggests that stereotypes can almost entirely explain the gender equality paradox.
This research suggests that economic development and gender equality go hand-in-hand with a reshaping rather than a suppression of gender norms, with the emergence of new and more horizontal forms of social gender difference. The origins of the gender equality paradox are wholly cultural.