Coauthored by Maria Charles, professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, with Karen Bradley of Western Washington University, the study was presented Aug. 13 at the 100th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Philadelphia.
"Restrictive government practices that minimize choice and prioritize merit may actually result in more gender-neutral distribution across fields of study," the researchers write.
Charles and Bradley analyzed data compiled in 2004 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on higher education degrees awarded in 2001. Examining seven fields of study, including engineering and math/physical sciences, Charles and Bradley calculated representation factors for each country by comparing male-to-female ratios in a program to those same ratios in other academic programs (which controls for international differences in women's enrollments).
They found, as expected, that on the whole women predominate in such traditionally female-typed fields as education and health and lag behind in stereotypically masculine fields. In computer science, females are underrepresented in all 21 of the industrialized countries considered.
They also found that extent of the difference in male-to-female ratios varies a great deal. Males are overrepresented among computer science graduates by a factor of 1.79 in Turkey, on the low end, to a factor of 6.42 in the Czech Republic, on the high. That is, male overrepresentation in computer science in the Czech Republic is more than three times more extreme than in Turkey.
In the United States, the "male overrepresentation factor" is 2.10 and in the United Kingdom, 3.10. (See figure for all 21 nations.)
"The ubiquity of women's underrepresentation attests to the persistence of deep-seated and widely shared beliefs that men and women are naturally different and that they are suited for different occupations," Charles said. "But the fact that there's so much cross-national variability suggests there's lots of room for country-specific cultural and social influences to play out."
There is little evidence, though, Charles said, for standard arguments of social evolution: The most economically developed countries do not produce the greatest numbers of women in computer science. Nor is there a strong correlation with more women in the workforce or in high-status jobs or in higher education generally.
Girls' higher math achievement does not equate with better representation in stereotypically male fields, the researchers find.
Broad cultural support for equal opportunity is also not a good predictor. None of the study's highest-scoring nations - Turkey, South Korea and Ireland - the authors note, is particularly known for gender-egalitarian attitudes or practices.
"The principle of being free to pursue your preferences is compatible and coexists quite comfortably with a belief in essential gender differences. This essentialist notion, which helps to create what it seeks to explain, affects girls' views of what they're good at and can shape what they like," said Charles, who is also co-author of the award-winning book Occupational Ghettos: The Worldwide Segregation of Men and Women (Stanford UP, 2004; in paperback Aug. 2005).
In response to women's perceived interests and preferences, Charles said, modern societies diversify their educational systems and set up niche programs targeted to women - vocational degrees in tourism-hospitality, for instance, or early childhood education. Service-dominated economies, another feature of industrialized democracies, likewise result in more "pink-collar ghettos."
"There is no doubt that collective beliefs holding that men are naturally 'better' at math and science are major factors that influence women's choices of college majors - and determine the climate in math and science programs worldwide," Charles said.
"When we emphasize choice and hold up self-realization as an educational goal, girls will often freely choose poorly paid, female-typed fields of study that are in line with a conventional feminine identity and stereotypes about what girls are good at," she said, adding that such tendencies appear to be especially pervasive in the most affluent, industrialized societies.
What countries with the best female representation in computer science seem to have in common, Charles and Bradley observe, are governments that "exert strong control over curricular trajectories" and require substantial math and science coursework. In South Korea, for example, math has to be studied through grade 12 and science through grade 11. The Irish require math and science throughout secondary school. State-mandated exams then control entry to universities and specific academic programs.
The policy implications, Charles said, are clear: "Rather than letting people take what they expect to love (or expect to be good at), educational systems should insist on more math and science for all students. As other research has repeatedly shown, choices made during adolescence are more likely to be made on the basis of gender stereotypes, so we should push off choice until later."
The research is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and the American Educational Research Association. It will be published as a chapter in a forthcoming book from MIT Press, Women and Information Technology: Research on the Reasons for Underrepresentation.
Male "Overrepresentation Factor": Computer Science Programs, 2001
Values give the factor by which men are overrepresented in computer science programs
in their respective country, relative to their representation in the other fields of study.