The Gender Gap in STEM is NOT What You Think

In a new NBER working paper David Card and Abigail Payne have a stunning new explanation of the gender gap in STEM at universities. The conventional wisdom is that the gender gap is about women and the forces–discrimination, sexism, parenting, aptitudes, choices; take your pick–that make women less likely to study in STEM fields. Card and Payne are saying that the great bulk of the gap is actually about men and their problems. At least that is my interpretation of their results, the authors, to my mind, don’t clearly state just how much their results run against the conventional wisdom. (Have I misunderstood their paper? We shall see.)

The authors are using a large data set on Canadian high school students that includes data on grade 12 (level 4) high school classes and grades and initial university program. Using this data, the authors find that females are STEM ready:

…At the end of high school, females have nearly the same overall rate of STEM readiness as males, and
slightly higher average grades in the prerequisite math and science courses.  The mix of STEM related courses taken by men and women is different, however, with a higher concentration of women in biology and chemistry and a lower concentration in physics and calculus.

Since females are STEM-ready when leaving high school you are probably thinking that the gender gap must be a result either of different entry choices conditional on STEM-readiness or different attrition rates. No. Card and Payne say that entry rates and attrition rates are similar for males and females. So what explains why males are more likely to take a STEM degree than females?

The main driver of the gender gap is the fact that many more females (44%) than males (32%) enter university.  Simply assuming that non‐STEM ready females had the same university entry rate as non‐STEM ready males would
narrow the gender gap in the fraction of university entrants who are STEM ready from 14
percentage points to less than 2 percentage points.


On average, females have about the same average grades in UP (“University Preparation”, AT) math and sciences courses as males, but higher grades in English/French and other qualifying courses that count toward the top 6 scores that determine their university rankings. This comparative advantage explains a substantial share of the gender difference in the probability of pursing a STEM major, conditional on being STEM ready at the end of high school.

Put (too) simply the only men who are good enough to get into university are men who are good at STEM. Women are good enough to get into non-STEM and STEM fields. Thus, among university students, women dominate in the non-STEM fields and men survive in the STEM fields. (The former is mathematically certain while the latter is true only given current absolute numbers of male students. If fewer men went to college, women would dominate both fields). I don’t know whether this story will hold up but one attractive feature, as a theory, is that it is consistent with the worrying exit from the labor market of men at the bottom.

If we accept these results, the gender gap industry is focused on the wrong thing. The real gender gap is that men are having trouble competing everywhere except in STEM.

Hat tip: Scott Cunningham.


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