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Women and math

March 14, 2018


THE drill is well known: every time the results of some sort of worldwide survey are released, women in the Muslim world are towards the bottom. Afghan women usually occupy the lowest rungs of political participation, women in Somalia and Sudan have the lowest access to healthcare facilities, women in Iraq and Syria are forced into marriages at astoundingly young ages, and Pakistani women along with Egyptian women experience high levels of domestic violence and general misogyny.

Years of these sorts of surveys, products of complexities reduced to variables and relationship to regression, have taught those who read them to approach with caution, a degree of warranted criticism, a degree of preparedness for the disappointments to follow.

It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to encounter a study that upended all others. In her book titled Fifty Million Rising, social scientist Saadia Zahidi found that women in many Muslim countries have a higher number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields than their counterparts in other nations. The percentages are impressive: in Iran, 70 per cent of university graduates in STEM fields are women; in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, 60pc of graduates are women, and over 40pc of science graduates in Algeria are women. According to Zahidi, the reason for the advance is that many of these Muslim countries have invested heavily in improving women’s access and education in these fields.

It’s not that they do not encounter gender stereotypes or the sort of constraints that come from being a woman in conservative and male-dominated societies, it is that women are genuinely ambitious and want to excel. In some countries, like the UAE and Jordan, girls actually expressed greater confidence in their math skills than boys at the same age and grade level. In contrast to these percentages, only 18pc of all computer science degrees at American universities are awarded to women. At the high school level, only 27pc of those who sit for the Advanced Placement Computer Science Exam are female.

Women in many Muslim countries have a higher number of graduates in STEM fields than their counterparts in other nations.

Of course, each time there are survey results that are surprising, there are also uncommon interpretations that seek to unravel the supposed mystery that would explain them. In this case, some analysts have turned to considering how women who are disadvantaged in many ways, often denied permission to do this or that, their freedom circumscribed by tribe or tradition, manage to pull off such a feat. The answer they found lay in the realm of what the women aspired to achieve. According to another study published in the journal Psychological Science, women in countries with the highest degree of gender inequality pursue STEM careers in science and technology because they want the “clearest possible” path to financial success. This clear path often means pursuing a science- or math-based profession.

The issue, then, is not one of aptitude or natural ability. Analysing data from women across 67 countries, researchers found that girls performed equally or better than boys in the metrics of math performance, and girls would have qualified for college-level math courses had they chosen to enrol in them. What girls would choose if their choices did not have adverse effects on their career prospects is of course a different matter. In nearly all countries except Romania and Lebanon, girls picked reading instead of math as their favourite subject. Similarly, boys picked math instead of reading.

The explanation, then, for the disparity or relative superiority of girls in Muslim countries is simply that richer countries have greater gender equality. When there is greater gender equality, there are more choices and fewer consequences for the wrong ones. Given the greater number of choices, women are able to choose what they want to do rather than what they have to do. As a result, the greater the gender equality, the lower the numbers of girls engaged in STEM careers.

It’s a good explanation but not necessarily the most convincing one. For one, if it’s gender inequality within a given society that is the determinant in these differences, then higher levels of gender inequality would make it even harder for women to pursue and excel in STEM fields. Given that these fields tend to be dominated by males, women in conservative countries would face even more obstacles and hence be less likely to choose them even if they did present a clear path to financial stability.

Finally, since many women may pursue training in a particular STEM field, even though they may not expect to actually have a profession (this is the case in many Muslim countries), the explanation that they only choose careers based on financial possibility and stability rather than on preference does not hold sway.

Whether or not one believes the varying analyses, one fact holds regardless of how we explain the results of the survey. Whether women choose science, technology, engineering and math based on what they believe will be a stable and lucrative career, or language-based fields based on their preference (in rich countries), they are able to adapt to the sociological conditions that are best for them. This adaptability shows how women, having faced obstacles for centuries, have likely become far more resilient than men who imagine few social, cultural or legal constraints to their achievement.

Women in Muslim countries confront the most obstacles, nearly all of them arbitrary and imposed by men. Long conditioned to expect these kinds of obstacles in their way, they learn to work extra hard, be better than the best and as perfect as possible. The hard sciences and the STEM fields in general, empirical as they are, reveal the fruits of this section of the population that knows they have to be beyond excellent to be taken seriously and to avail themselves of the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Women in Muslim countries excel, therefore, because they are more used to challenges and to hardship than other women in the world; a thorny mathematical problem, a conundrum of construction or industrial design, is nothing in comparison to what they face in just getting to and returning from work or school on any given day.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2018