Women's lack of representation in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — better known as STEM — could have more to do with their academic strengths than their weaknesses.
That's according to new research which suggests that fewer girls pursue careers in STEM not because they're worse than boys at math, but because they're better than boys at reading.
In a study of more than 300,000 15-year-olds across 64 countries, the report found that boys only marginally outperformed girls in math tests, while girls vastly outperformed their male counterparts in reading exams.
The research, which was based on the math and reading portions of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's program for international student assessment, found a standard deviation of just 10% in girls' and boys' math results, versus a "wide margin" in their reading responses.
That gap, it noted, was likely to lead more girls than boys to study humanities-related subjects and, as a result, fewer math-related ones.
The report said the new findings could account for up to 80% of the vast and persistent gender gap in STEM studies because they point to a wide educational disparity at what is a critical time in students' academic decision making process.
"The difference between 15-year-old students' math and reading abilities ... can explain up to 80% of the gender gap in intentions to pursue math-studies and careers," economists Thomas Breda of the Paris School of Economics and Clotilde Napp of Paris Dauphine University wrote in the report.
Those results "confirm that (boys') comparative advantage in math with respect to reading at the time of making educational choices plays a key role in the process leading to women's underrepresentation in math-intensive fields."
As of 2017, women accounted for just 35% of STEM students at higher education levels, according to UNESCO.
The economists said they hoped the research would help to dispel continued misconceptions about girl's math abilities and encourage more girls to study subjects related to STEM, which could often lead to more lucrative jobs.
Meanwhile, they said they hoped it would prompt more support for boys in reading.
The pair, however, were also keen to highlight the many social factors — such as lack of role models and educational support — that continue to contribute to the lack of representation of women in the fields of STEM.
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