A new study seeks to understand why Russian women only make up 26 percent of students in Engineering, Technology and Technical Sciences undergraduate courses, 27 percent in Computer and Information Sciences courses, 31 percent of Mathematics and Mechanics, and 32 percent in Physics and Astronomy.
Gender representation is different in Europe as well, but it goes both ways. The social sciences and education fields are dominated by women and men have around the representation women have in engineering above. In Russia, a new paper notes, the reason may be more stereotypes, some worry; women are convinced they can't do math as well as men. There is no financial reason for the difference, in Russia, most students' tuition fees are subsidised by the state.
Natalia Maloshonok and Irina Shcheglova, research fellows of the Higher School of Economics University in Saint Petersburg, examine how and why gender stereotypes can disempower female students, leading to poor academic performance and high dropout rates in Russian women. In order to test their hypothesis that the imbalance was largely be due to gender stereotypes, the researchers analysed data from the Study of Undergraduate Performance (SUPER-test) , an international comparative study of engineering students' educational achievement carried out by HSE in cooperation with Stanford University and others.
The researchers examined data on undergraduates in 17 engineering and computer science majors, including fundamental informatics, applied informatics, mathematics, information systems, software engineering, radio engineering, electronics, laser technology, photonics, and others. The found that young men were more likely than young women to drop out from STEM majors, e.g. by 7% (19% versus 12% for women) for engineering and by 5% (22% versus 17%) for computer science. It was simply that women were less likely to major in it in the first place. Since there is no financial reason for greater dropout rates by men, or lower entry rates by women, the authors believe some of the difference may be risk propensity. Young men have greater tolerance for risk, so perhaps they are undertaking majors beyond their abilities, whereas women complete more programs because they are more conservative in their approach.
Young men may also wildly overstate their abilities. Only 10 percent of Russian female students in senior grades assess their competence in mathematics as high, compared to 38 percent of boys.
If risk propensity is a factor, then it makes sense that on average female undergraduates in STEM majors perform better academically than their male counterparts and are more likely to complete their studies. The authors believe it may be possible to reduce the dropout rates of female students even further, or get more to enroll. It may be by reducing systemic bias in Russian culture which undermines female students' confidence in their ability to compete successfully with men.
Even 35 percent of females in the survey believed that a chromosome difference gave men better ability in math, though actual results show that when women do go into numerical fields, they do better on average. With so much bias in Russian culture, it may be that women believe they will hit a glass ceiling regardless of their abilities and switch fields. And it may be due to well-meaning beliefs about something only women can do; childbirth. One physicist commented that if she left the field men "would probably write it off to the difficulty of combining a career in science with having kids. The assumption is that women are more involved in the family, leaving them less time for "proper" science'." This is something that women say frequently as well, which means they may not only have a perceptual roadblock among men, they also face it from women.