Reversing the STEM gender gap in Israel?

A new study compares Hebrew-speaking with some Arabic-speaking communities, here is the abstract:

In the past three decades in high‐income countries, female students have outperformed male students in most indicators of educational attainment. However, the underrepresentation of girls and women in science courses and careers, especially in physics, computer sciences, and engineering, remains persistent. What is often neglected by the vast existing literature is the role that schools, as social institutions, play in maintaining or eliminating such gender gaps. This explorative case study research compares two high schools in Israel: one Hebrew‐speaking state school that serves mostly middleclass students and exhibits a typical gender gap in physics and computer science; the other, an Arabic‐speaking state school located in a Bedouin town that serves mostly students from a lower socioeconomic background. In the Arabic‐speaking school over 50% of the students in the advanced physics and computer science classes are females. The study aims to explain this seemingly counterintuitive gender pattern with respect to participation in physics and computer science. A comparison of school policies regarding sorting and choice reveals that the two schools employ very different policies that might explain the different patterns of participation. The Hebrew‐speaking school prioritizes self‐fulfillment and “free‐choice,” while in the Arabic‐speaking school, staff are much more active in sorting and assigning students to different curricular programs. The qualitative analysis suggests that in the case of the Arabic‐speaking school the intersection between traditional and collectivist society and neoliberal pressures in the form of raising achievement benchmarks contributes to the reversal of the gender gap in physics and computer science courses.

The article is “Explaining a reverse gender gap in advanced physics and computer science course‐taking: An exploratory case study comparing Hebrew‐speaking and Arabic‐speaking high schools in Israel” by Halleli Pinson, Yariv Feniger, and Yael Barak.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.


My goodness, it is almost as if much of what we observe about gender roles is socially constructed.

Nope. When people are free to pursue their interests, underlying differences in interests emerge.

"Being free to pursue your own interests" is still a social system, which influences how gender roles are constructed. Just because there's no explicit mandate that governs career choices doesn't mean that people aren't influenced by unwritten social cues and cultural expectations.

To be clear, I think freedom of choice is a superior system in every way. I'm just pointing out that "lack of an explicit social system" is still a social system.

In the most egalitarian and open societies that we have (mostly Scandinavia), where all children are encouraged to follow their interests, and pains are taken to empower young women, those women choose STEM careers less than in less enlightened parts of the world, like the US.

If Arab women are choosing STEM, it is probably a sign of the lack of any other opportunity for them. If they were treated fairly and equitably, they'd leave STEM, just like women in Sweden.

There's a distribution of the population on a scale where one end is interest in gadgets/mechanical devices, and the other end is interest in people and people-oriented processes. The male mean is one standard deviation further towards mechanical-oriented than the female mean. This is a huge effect, which entirely explains why only 20-30% of engineering students are female. In Sweden, that number shrinks to 10%. There are even fewer male nurses in Scandinavia than there are in the US. The male nurses on both sides of the Atlantic cluster in technical branches like operating room nurse where there are lots of machines and the patients are unconscious.

If this is a social construct, why does the effect increase in those countries where they have tried the hardest to defeat that supposedly learned bias?

Excellent summary. A recent study that chimes in with your account is Ming-Te Wang, Jacquelynne S. Eccles & Sarah Kenny, Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, 24 PSYCHOL. SCI. 770 (2013).

Here is my summary: There are strong reasons for concluding that ... the underrepresentation of women in Silicon Valley may be the result of their free choices. One telling finding that suggests this is the case was reported a few years ago. Ming-te Wang and his colleagues found that “mathematically capable individuals who also had high verbal skills were less likely to pursue STEM careers than were individuals who had high math skills but moderate verbal skills.” No surprise there, you might think. But, the study also found that “the group with high math and high verbal ability included more females than males.” In other words, it may be theorized, more men than women go into STEM fields because that is the only choice open to them. The gender disparity in STEM and Silicon Valley may be due to the fact that women have more choice than men, not less." SEE my "Why the Business Case for Diversity is Wrong" at

Oh my god! If we force people to be productive, rather than "self-fulfilling", they become more productive, regardless of their sex? Who would have thought, that making people do stuff makes them do stuff.

I have seen a video on YouTube of a woman being beheaded by a man in an Arabic speaking country. Perhaps those women being poked (nudged) by neoliberals in the school saw the same video.


The author seems oblivious, possibly intentionally, that shows the connection between ability of women in a given country to choose their own profession and them choosing fields other then STEM.

Perhaps we should be concerned about the lack of men in more rewarding and lucrative fields, such as advertising.

STEM careers are an inferior choice. Women who outperform men academically have more choices available and do not choose STEM careers.

But the nursing occupation is still sexist.

10% less personal freedom.

"...intersection between traditional and collectivist society and neoliberal pressures in the form of raising achievement benchmarks contributes to the reversal of the gender gap in physics and computer science courses."

Hmmm. Yes neoliberalism did it. But I seem to remember that the most egalitarian societies, like Nordic countries, have the most gender imbalance in the hard sciences and engineering. It is almost as if there were differences between men and women.

So the story is that neoliberalism creates pressures for measurable academic achievement, leading these Arabic-language schools to push high-ability girls into STEM subjects which they would not have chosen themselves. (Is it easier to measure student performance in STEM subjects? Does neoliberalism value "achievement benchmarks" in STEM over those in the softer subjects?) But I would have thought that neoliberalism also fosters "free choice," which would empower girls to follow their inclinations, after all.

Arab girls are disciplined and hard working as compared to their male counterparts. It would be a waste of time to force boys study math, and the teachers know it. Arab girls are better students than boys, they seem to be more repressed. But that is slowly changing.

Right, Arab cultures are so male chauvinist that boys are lazy, while girls are subservient and thus study hard in the tough classes. In feminist cultures like Scandinavia, girls want to fulfill themselves by studying what they like, which is usually not STEM.

I think a more parsimonious and probably more accurate explanation is that young men have more earning opportunities and hence a lower opportunity cost of college education.
Can't resist a plug for the 2016 Israeli movie "Sand Storm", a Romeo-and-Juliet knockoff in which a young Bedouin lady goes off to college and meets a boy from the wrong tribe.

Girls told to send m,ore time with a book an less time with the mirror.

This "study" is brimming with the worst sort of academic discourse that undermines its credibility. Just a few samples from the article:

"Adopting a poststructuralist feminist perspective, and focusing on agency in recent years, a growing body of research has contributed to our understanding of the ways in which the construction of femininity and girlhood plays a role in maintaining the gender gap in certain STEM domains. Instead of asking why girls and boys are different in their participation in science and math, these studies ask how girls and boys do gender and perform femininity and masculinity through their subject and career choices and attitudes toward STEM." Apparently the authors of this study are naive enough to believe that poststructuralism and science are compatible despite the former's insistence that science is likewise a social construction (see Sokal hoax).

Of course the great villain (I thought we were supposed to get beyond good and evil) in their story is neoliberalism: "To a great extent, neoliberal individualistic discourse depoliticizes gender inequalities. Since it sees achievement as a direct result of one's actions, motivation, and their ability to make a rational choice, it ignores the influence of social categorizations, such as gender, on individuals' academic attainment and paths. Thus, neoliberalism's emphasis on “authentic” individual choice has the potential to contribute to even greater gender gap in participation in some STEM domains."

And no study on gender these days can go without reciting the catechism of intersectionality: "Further research is required to consider the impact of not just culture and school policy on these patterns, but also class. A larger project encompassing more school case studies will be able to surpass this limitation and explore the intersection between gender, culture, class, and school policies."

One indeed has to admire the conclusion that the truly feminist outcome was achieved by having the men who run the school tell the girls what to study.

Query also the ultimate success levels of those who were forced to take the subject versus those who chose it.

This paper supports what I've been saying for years: real feminist cultures are only found in the Middle East. In the West, oppressive patriarchy continues to thrive under the banner of neoliberalism.

In short, like what most of what Tyler links to--and, to be fair, like most of the social science papers he doesn't link to--this is a jargon-filled bit of rhetorical posturing that tells us nothing we didn't already know. Say "Straussian" to absolve Tyler of responsibility.

Orwell understood: he called it "duckspeak."

"A burgeoning amount of scholarship has attempted to unravel critical approaches to investigating human resource development (HRD). There are limited critiques, however, of gender, diversity and the intersections of these deliberations within HRD theorizing. Adopting a feminist poststructuralist approach, this paper advances critical understandings of HRD by challenging epistemological and dominant theorizing in HRD. The author examines what it means when HRD writings are said to be gendered; how the political and processual dynamics of doing HRD can be understood; how the differences for doing gender, doing HRD and embodying HRD can be unravelled; and how feminist modes of inquiry can engender the value of embodied reflexivity. Weaving together literature strands from gender and education, gender and organization, and women's studies and feminist writings, the paper provides a foundational framework for how HRD scholars can re-imagine new knowledge and inject notions of the feminine and difference in HRD writings. The analysis focuses on three interrelated areas and their implications for feminist critique: the importance of examining language and discourse in HRD; the performing body in HRD; and, finally, feminist embodied reflexivity. It is argued that the HRD scholarly community should consider critical modes of inquiry to refresh and renew HRD theory building, specifically that we should examine conceptualizations of the feminine and difference in HRD writings in order to aid transformational practice."

I can't access the paper right now, but I see some glaring red flags. (Anyone with access can feel free to chime in or correct any errors.)

1a) The fact that they're comparing a middle-class and a lower-class school is already suspect. How big is each class? How do the curriculums differ? Why did they only look at two schools, and why *these* schools?

1b) I don't care what the answers to 1a) are. Why didn't they do a more comprehensive analysis or at least pick more similar schools to analyze? Surely, there must be some charter-type system that could test out the effects of active sorting vs. free choice. Maybe the paper explains this in detail, but I'm very suspicious.

2) What percentage of each class goes into advanced physics or comp. sci? If, e.g., 10% of the Hebrew-speaking class does physics/comp. sci vs. only 1% of the Bedouin class, then it's highly misleading to compare the gender ratios and attribute the differences to "neoliberalism."

3) Speaking of which, what about all the other kids? What percentage completes high school? How big is each town and what types of job opportunities are there? And what are the gender breakdowns in those careers?

4) It's hard to interpret data about students' satisfaction, but did they ask them what they thought of their school/career? Would the Bedouin students prefer a "free choice" system? (Or does asking that expose them to neoliberal hegemony?)

I strongly suspect there's some cherry-picking and misdirection going on. I could be wrong, but the fact that the abstract only mentions a magical "gender gap reversal" in physics and comp. sci. tells me they're not showing all their cards. If they could see an interesting shift in gender demographics for any other careers, they'd mention it front and center.

This effect has been shown in many other studies. It's not surprising that in less-developed communities, the strongest students will take the best opportunities available. When money isn't as much of a constraint, other social factors take precedence. This can all be explained without invoking "neoliberal pressures", the "authenticity of free-choice", or the "performance of gender."

The meaning of "excellent" wrt Kevin Lewis has now become so over-used that it no longer indicates excellence, while omitting it would indicate that he has become sub-par. I'll take your word that Kevin rocks but Perhaps a "superlative Kevin Lewis" or "magnificent Kevin Lewis" would be better? After all it's not 1985 anymore.
Re anon7: in social sciences journals it is basically required to add a few words about "future directions". It's a mere formality.

Many universities in Arabic-speaking countries are either single-gender or have campuses or classrooms that are single-gender. I'm not sure how this study addresses this, or if it matters. One might argue that all-female campuses or classrooms would be conducive to females pursuing a variety of subjects, including STEM, in a culture that otherwise promotes female subservience and gender-specific roles.

In the past three decades in high‐income countries, female students have outperformed male students in most indicators of educational attainment.

Is it tiresome to keep pointing out that this is the critical educational inequity and that accepting it as a natural (or even desirable!) state of affairs is rank bigotry?

I don't hear it pointed out often enough

So, when not forced to do so, females prefer non-STEM careers. Imagine that.

If these girls won't freely choose to be engineers, then by god we'll force them to!

Still, I don't see anyone coercing males to be preschool teachers or nurses.

Isnt this known?

High economic wealth results in freedom of choice results in massive gender imbalance in fields chosen. Low economic wealth results in scrambling for best pay, regardless of preferences.

Also school is designed for girls.

I dont know if theres anything new here.

It's a common plot on social media that people, women included, regret their choices.

I don't think we should be too happy with either extreme: follow your dream, or suffer for your family.

But if you ask me to bet, "sufferers" might actually come out ahead in life satisfaction. They are more likely to have done something that was needed.

Click through to Cristina Fernández at that link and read the responses.

(people caught up in the gender aspect are probably missing the story)

My impression from family in Honduras, is that Honduran women (and men too to a lesser extent) are much more likely to marry for money than USAers.
Times are very good in the developed world.
You can marry for love and study your interests.
And of course when you don't earn much money you can still complain.

Why does it matter? (serious question). Looking at some fields when I was in University; HR, Social Work and Dietitics were essentially all women. It's ok for anyone of anyone ethnicity/gender/etc to pick any field they want to go in. In many fields there will be a gender gap in one direction or another. Yes, in general STEM (emphasis on the 'T') will pay more but people should work in fields they want to, not the fields the media says they should work in because there is a gap.

Isn't this the same case as in India? For women in India IT carreer is one of the few ways how to do reasonably nice work and earn quite good money. As a result, there is a lot of women in IT in India. In more developed countries there are many different opportunities - and there are less women in STEM in general. Can that be a pattern?

Also, there is a difference betwen having 50% of class in STEM and then seeing those women get a position and remain working in these fields.

Comments for this post are closed