The Gender Gap in Science & Technology

How the gender gap in science and tech can possibly be worse in Sweden than Iran? Sweden is officially branded as “A Feminist Government”. Iranian government on the other hand is known for its oppressive policies towards women. But why the numbers don’t add up? What are we missing?

I have read and heard many arguments about the reasons for the immense gender gap in science and technology, but I’m yet to read a convincing one. Arguments range from differences in genetics, which I find it highly unlikely, to lack of opportunities for women, which you may agree with me after reading this article that it doesn’t explain all the evidence.

For any argument you can find a list of supporting studies. Yet, most of the studies I have seen have been based on interviewing hundreds of people, perhaps a thousand. I have read enough papers and done enough experiments to know that 100 or 1000 samples usually aren’t enough to model complex human behavior. Even given enough samples, finding causality with statistics is extremely hard, and requires factoring out all the relevant variables. It’s very easy to confuse correlation with causality.

Perhaps the argument that I want to present here is also susceptible to these flaws, and I’m not claiming to be an expert in the area. But I’m just going to provide some data points that I think the reader may find surprising.

Studying Computer Science in Tehran

I lived the first twenty years of my life in Iran. In my country every year all the students who finish high school participate in a global exam to enter university in one massive competition called “Concours”. When I participated in that exam more than one million students were taking the exam, and the acceptance rate was about 13%. To get to the top universities in the capital (Tehran) you had to be within the top 1%, and to enroll in the most popular programs you needed to do even better.

At the time, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science were two of the most popular programs among students, and getting to these programs was extremely hard. Fortunately for me I ended up getting admission to the Computer Science program in the National University of Iran, the second largest university in Tehran. Not to my surprise, but perhaps to the surprise of the western reader, I found the majority of my classmates to be females. The ratio was around 55% female vs 45% male in the CS program, and the numbers were similar all across engineering programs.

The reason was simple. Getting accepted in the CS program required very high scores. Girls studied more, and got better scores. It meant that they could choose what they wanted to study, and they wanted to study computer science and engineering because there were more job opportunities for engineers and computer scientists.

The trend continued later. In fact, it got to the point that the Iranian government was considering policies to introduce a 50% cap on the number of females in some of the programs.

Graduation ceremony of students in the National University of Iran

Entering the modern world

After graduating with a bachelors degree, I applied to several universities in Europe and got admitted to one of the top technical universities in Stockholm, The Royal Institute of Technology (aka KTH). To my surprise though, although several women held the top faculty positions in the CS department at KTH, very few female students applied/were admitted to the Computer Science program. In my class, there was only one female student who was not Swedish, and the rest of the class (~40) were males.

Danica Kragic: Vice Dean of School of Computer Science at KTH, also a fashion icon

Looking at the evidence it looks like the gender gap in science and technology is much worse in Sweden when compared to Iran. But how could that be? Sweden is officially branded as “a feminist government”. Iranian government on the other hand is known for its oppressive policies towards women.

There are very many programs with significant funding to encourage women to attend science and engineering programs in Sweden, there is no such an equivalent in Iran. If anything, the government encourages the women to stay home and take care of their husbands and children. It seems that attempts by both of the governments to do social engineering has failed. But what makes western women less likely to pursue science than Iranians?

I wish I had the answer to that, but I don’t! But here are some observations.

In Iran, scientists and engineers are highly respected. Being a scientist or engineer is considered as admirable as being a doctor. Famous scientists in Iran are as big or bigger celebrities than the athletes or movie stars. We don’t use words like “nerd” or “geek” (we don’t even have the equivalence) to refer to our scientists, but we often use genius and brilliant.

Mehran Modiri arguably the most famous Iranian comedian with his guest Prof. Majid Samii in his celebrity talk show

Compare that to the current western culture. I sometimes find myself hiding the fact that I have a PhD or am a software engineer to get better received when I meet new people. The top rated American TV show, The Big Bang Theory, portrays scientists as awkward, socially inept, and insensitive people. The only cool/normal woman in the show is a waitress who is not well educated and not particularly smart.

A scene from the Big Bang Theory TV show.

Could the reason that fewer women want to study science and engineering in the west be simply that in the popular culture in the west there seems to be little or no respect and admiration for the scientists?

The coverage of Hollywood stars and professional athletes in the American media is nothing like I have seen in my country. For example, I have yet to find a CNN first page story about a prominent scientist or engineer. I have seen many about often short lived Hollywood celebrities’ weddings.

I don’t claim to have the answer to the problem of the gender gap in science and technology, but I have a hard time believing it’s because of genetic differences or lack of opportunities for women in the west. People are usually good at fighting unjust discriminations. What people aren’t good at is coming out of the bubble they accepted as their culture.