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A large number of social factors have discouraged women from pursuing careers in science and technology. But in a number of countries, an increasingly egalitarian view of gender differences has been associated with rising math and science scores for girls. However, that change hasn't been followed by increased participation in science and tech careers; in fact, the frequency of women pursuing degrees in these areas is often higher in societies that are far from egalitarian.
Two researchers, Gijsbert Stoet of the UK and David Geary in the US, decided to explore this paradoxical trend. Their analysis suggests that the situation may be the product of a complex mixture of relative talents, general confidence, and social factors. The results drive home that, if we want to attract and retain some of the best talent in the sciences, it's going to take more than simply ensuring they have equal access to advanced degrees.
Stoet and Geary's research relies on a lot of publicly available information. One of the keys to this work is the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which gives standardized tests to students around the world. The most recent iteration of these tests was given to about half a million students in a total of 71 countries, and so provides a trans-national measure of students' skills in math, science, and reading comprehension. Critically, when it came to science, the PISA survey also asked about students' interest in and enjoyment of science, as well as if they felt confident they could do some basic scientific analysis without supervision.
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