Images, Structures and Individual’s Choices: The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Paradox

To begin to probe how individual choices may shape women’s educational experience, one can start by examining the gender ratio in higher education. According to Charles (2017b), one meaningful method of ranking countries on their degree of sex segregation in science education is to compare the “female-to-male” ratio among graduates in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to that same comparison among graduates in all other educational domains. By such a measure, the wealthy and highly industrialized United States is situated in about the middle of the spectrum—alongside Ecuador, Mongolia, Germany and Ireland—an otherwise heterogeneous group on most conventional measures of “women’s status”[1] (Charles, 2017b, p. 112).

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) concerning the number of degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, while American women are increasingly outpacing U.S. males (57% female vs. 43% male earned Bachelor’s degrees in 2017), they comprise only about 30% of all STEM degree holders. Moreover, women with such degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to pursue a STEM occupation; they are instead more likely to work in education or non-STEM-related healthcare fields (Noonan, 2017). Figure 1 depicts the breakdown of STEM degree graduates by gender for the United States in 2015. The specific health care and education percentages refer only to non-STEM degree holders working in those fields. Professionals in STEM-related posts active in those domains appear in the STEM totals (in red) in the figure.

Figure 1

College-educated Workers with a STEM Degree by Gender and STEM Occupation, 2015

Source: (Noonan,2017, p. 9)

Paradoxically, internationally, women’s representation in science programs is weakest in the Netherlands and strongest in Iran, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and Oman, where science is disproportionately a female enterprise (Charles, 2017). At first blush, this fact seems strange, as none of these nations are as democratic or progressive as Holland or the United States concerning women’s rights. Indeed, on the more basic, as Weingarten has dubbed them, “indicators of gender equality—women’s political participation, access to education and economic opportunities, and existence of overtly discriminatory laws or policies—women are for the most part faring better in the U.S. than in some of these developing nations” (Weingarten, 2017).

Charles has argued that one would expect the United States should be a world leader in abolishing gender-based segregation of prestigious previously male-dominated occupations and fields of study since, “laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex have been in place for more than half a century, and the idea that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities is practically uncontested (at least in public) in the U.S. today” (2017b, p. 110).

Moreover, since at least the early 1980s the United States’ federal government has invested in initiatives aimed at increasing girls’ participation in STEM fields (e.g., the 1981 Equal Opportunities for Women and Minorities in Science and Technology Act) which may have helped to increase the number of female undergraduate engineering graduates in the country from 2% in the mid-1970s to 17% in the 1990s (Kranov, DeBoer and Abu-Lail, 2014, p. 25). And that trend has continued as federal funds and other public, private and civic organization interventions have increased the percentage of female undergraduate engineering graduates from 17.3% in 1995 to 35.1% in 2014-15 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). Nevertheless, while this trend is hopeful for engineering, across all of the STEM fields, American universities and firms lag considerably behind those of many other countries, including developing nations with no such legal record, with respect to women’s participation in STEM fields.

Kranov et al. have identified several factors that have shaped the uneven distribution of women and men across STEM fields internationally: women’s overall lower status within societies, the structure of national educational systems, and cultural beliefs and norms regarding women globally and within specific countries, […] the notion of engineering as a masculine-gendered field and macro-level forces such as societal and global cultural norms and the logic and structure of educational systems themselves (Kranov, DeBoer and Abu-Lail, 2014, p. 23).

In this regard, Charles has noted that the freedom to choose a career may paradoxically encourage women in affluent Western democracies to construct and replicate stereotypically gendered self-identities (2017b, p. 112). Academic and career choices in these nations constitute acts of identity construction and self-affirmation, rather than serving simply as practical economic decisions. As a result, American females who aim to “study what they love” may be unlikely to consider male-labeled science, engineering or technical fields, despite the financial security often furnished by completion of such degrees (Charles, 2017a).  Accordingly, Charles has suggested that, “by allowing wide latitude in course choices” modern systems of higher education “make the incursion of gender stereotypes even easier” (2017b, p.115).

Charles (2017b) has hypothesized that the high number of female students in STEM fields in developing and transitional economies has been driven more by concerns about advancing economic development than by interests in accommodating women’s presumed affinities. Also, at the individual level, personal economic security and national development are such central concerns to young people and their parents in developing societies that there is less latitude and support for the realization of gender-specific preferences than in developed nations.

Nevertheless, a number of scholars have critiqued this argument. First, the fact that proponents of this perspective tend to view developing countries, including middle-eastern/Muslim nations, as a single homogeneous population, calls the accuracy of this contention into question. As Kranov et al. (2014) have demonstrated in their case analyses of several predominantly Islamic countries, these societies evidence diverse levels of economic prosperity, different cultures, varied challenges and quite distinct histories and education systems. It follows that females’ incentives for choosing to study in STEM fields in each of those nations are likely to differ widely. Indeed, Zahedifar, for example, has found that Iranian students choose university fields for an array of reasons:

  • Personal interest (47.0%), very similar percentages for both genders (45.3 % of male students and 48.9% of female students).
  • Improving social status (an average of 21.2% for women and men) with 15.5% for male students and 27.2% for female students;
  • Acquiring a well-paid job (an average of 19.6% for both genders) with 20.6% for male students and 18.5% for female students.
  • Potential of meeting a marriage partner (6.4% for both groups) with 9.3% for male students and 3.2% for female students.
  • Parental pressure (5.8% for men and women) with 9.3% for male students and 2.2% for female students (Zahedifar, 2012, p. 41)

This data suggests that, contrary to Charles’ contention, personal interest and improving social standing are important factors shaping female students’ academic choices, at least in Iran.

Second, Charles’ analytical method limited the data she was able to gather to address her research questions. Employing personal interviews and focus groups, DeBoer and Kranov (2014) found that in Tunisia and Jordan (such also occurs in Iran), all secondary school students complete a national examination after high school regardless of their socio-economic status, and state officials place them into particular college fields based on their scores.

This practice likely accounts for the high percentage of STEM field female students in Iran. When boys and girls compete on a national exam, their ranking according to their performance on that test reduces the relative significance of gender-based career choices.  At first glance, this appears to be paradoxical, since standing according to an exam’s results seems to limit freedom of choice. However, those rankings give women opportunities and confidence to select fields otherwise dominated by males. In this way, the national examination system allows women to choose their future academic and professional fields on the basis of their interests, rather than prevailing gender social constructs.

Nevertheless, although this mechanism seems to encourage women to exercise power and agency to pick their fields of study according to their interests, they may nonetheless risk compromising (sometimes inadvertently) those personal preferences to a fields’ perceived popularity. For example, when a woman ranks among the first 100 students in Iran’s national entrance exam, she can choose to study in any subject at any university that she desires. However, in most cases, individuals with such scores choose electrical engineering at Sharif University as the highest ranking (perceived as most prestigious) STEM program and University in Iran. Meanwhile, sacrificing one’s personal passion for a socially valued STEM field seems to be common in Tunisia; “a large percentage of girls aren’t driven by [their] passion for engineering, but by performance,” according to Raja Ghozi, a Tunisian engineering professor at the National Engineering School of Tunis, who studied in the U.S. (Weingarten, 2017).

Another important factor to consider when evaluating the relative efficacy of this model (i.e., comprehensive entrance exam) in engaging women in STEM fields, is females’ level of labor market participation/academic professions after graduating. It is generally true that more highly educated women raise healthier and better educated children (human capital), both of which are essential for economic development (Isfahani, 2008), However, the real impact of more women in STEM university fields is realized with their placement in STEM-related professions and positions. In Iran, for instance, according to one of the latest household surveys of expenditures and income, women with tertiary degrees are three times more likely to be unemployed than similarly credentialed men; 35% compared to a 12% unemployment rate for like educated men (Isfahani, 2008).


This essay has briefly examined factors influencing female choice to pursue education in STEM fields in Iran and the United States particularly.  I have sought to investigate the relationship between capacity for personal choice and women’s academic experiences in these two nations. In Iran, the structures and processes for gaining entrance to university have created a situation in which women are encouraged to choose their future field of study based on their level of skills and capabilities, at least as those are revealed by a nationally competitive examination. While some analysts have found this model successful in limiting the importance of gender-related stereotypes, others have argued that its actual impact has been low since women engineers/scientists are poorly represented in Iran’s labor market/academic positions.

In the case of the United States, as noted, while passion for an academic and professional field is important, focusing on that factor alone overlooks the ways culture, institutions and policies can reinforce whether women become interested in STEM fields in the first instance. The view of equality as equal opportunities to realize preferences, understood to be properties of individuals and therefore sacrosanct, can occur in both developing and developed countries. One might imagine that the United States is rooting gender inequality out of its institutions by abolishing formal restrictions and limiting policies and overt discrimination. Yet, inequality of opportunity between the genders can still exist in covert ways, such as the inculcation of stereotypical images of unattractive female scientists versus charming female “consumer” characters (e.g., the characters in the long-running comedy The Big Bang Theory on U.S. television) into young American women’s minds.  Indeed, in individualistic societies such as the United States, according to Weingarten (2017), young women come to believe early on that they are destined—or designed—for a “particular” career, a powerful narrative shaped and fortified by the media they consume and the people with whom they interact concerning their possible career trajectory. Perhaps, as Weingarten has observed, “if we let go of the idea that our preferences, aspirations, and capabilities are completely self-determined, perhaps we’ll truly experience a freedom of choice that has so far eluded us” (Weingarten, 2017).


[1] In the United States, Women’s Status is measured via a wide range of indicators. These are  tracked by the “Institute for Women’s Policy and Research (IWPR)” in each state along 6 different topics: Political Participation, Employment and Earnings, Poverty and Opportunity, Work and Family (added in 2015), Reproductive Rights and Health and Well-Being (with additional state and national level data provided on Violence & Safety).


Charles, M. (2017a). “Venus, Mars, and Math: Gender, Societal Affluence, and Eighth Graders’ Aspirations for STEM”. Socius, 3, 2378023117697179

Charles, M. (2017b). “What Gender Is Science”? In Gender, Sexuality, and Intimacy: A Contexts Reader (pp. 110–116). SAGE Publications, Inc.

Fouad, N. A., Singh, R., Fitzpatrick, M. E., and Liu, J. P. (2011). “Stemming the tide: Why women leave engineering”. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Final Report from NSF Award, 827553

Kranov, A. A., DeBoer, J., and Abu-Lail, N. (2014). “Factors affecting the educational and occupational trajectories of women in engineering in five comparative national settings”. In 2014 International Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning (ICL) (pp. 21–28). Dubai, United Arab Emirates: IEEE. Retrieved August 26, 2018, from

National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). “Table 318.30: Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctor’s Degrees Conferred by Postsecondary Institutions, By Sex of Student and Discipline Division: 2014-15,” Digest of Education Statistics.( Retrieved September 3, 2018)

Noonan, R. (2017). “Women in STEM: 2017 Update” | Economics & Statistics Administration (pp. 1–21). U.S. Department of Commerce. Retrieved August 25, 2018, from

Weingarten, E. (2017, November). “The STEM paradox: Why are Muslim-majority countries producing so many female engineers”? Retrieved August 26, 2018, from

Zahedifar, E. (2012). “Women in Higher Education in Iran”. University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. Retrieved August 27, 2018, from Pdf

Neda Moayerian is a fourth year doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include community development through community cultural activities and sustainable tourism. Currently, she works as a graduate assistant in the VT Office of Economic Development. Neda holds a Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning from Art University of Tehran and a Master’s degree in Urban Management from University of Tehran.

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