You’d think that societies with more gender equality would have a higher percentage of female graduates in science, technology, engineering and math — also known as STEM — but you’d be wrong. Researchers from the University of Missouri and Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom are reporting what they call a "gender-equality paradox" — as societies become wealthier and more gender equal, women are less likely to obtain STEM degrees.

It’s a particularly startling finding, given that these are fields in which girls and women are already underrepresented globally. The research may point to reasons why current approaches to narrow the gap have failed.

The researchers found that, throughout the world, boys' academic strengths tend to be in science or mathematics, which correlates to their likelihood of entering STEM fields. By contrast, girls tend to be strong in reading, which has historically made them more likely to enter non-STEM fields. This gender-based difference has been stable for decades.

In addition, wealthier and more liberal countries tend to provide a more supportive environment for the expression of personal preferences. So while women are actively encouraged to participate in STEM in these countries, more weight is placed upon their following their own interests.

“One consequence is that sex differences in academic strengths and interests become larger and have a stronger influence (on) college and career choices than in more conservative and less wealthy countries, creating the gender-equality paradox," explained David Geary, a Curators' Professor of psychological sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science.

And indeed, countries lauded for their high levels of gender equality — such as Finland, Norway or Sweden — have relatively few women among their STEM graduates. In contrast, more socially conservative countries such as Turkey or Algeria have a much larger percentage of women among their STEM graduates.

"In more affluent countries where any choice of career feels relatively safe, women may feel able to make choices based on non-economic factors,” added Gijsbert Stoet, a professor of psychology at Leeds Beckett University. “Conversely, in countries with fewer economic opportunities, or where employment might be precarious, a well-paid and relatively secure STEM career can be more attractive to women."

The researchers believe that findings from the study could help target interventions to make them more effective. They also suggest that policymakers should reconsider failing national policies focusing on decreasing the gender imbalance in STEM.