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Girls are just better at school, it appears. So why aren’t there more women in key roles at tech companies?
Girls outperform boys in academic achievement in 70 percent of the countries around the world, according to a recent study. The study, done by researchers at the University of Missouri and the University of Glasgow, looked at the educational achievement levels of 1.5 million 15-year-old students around the world, from 2000 to 2010.
“Even in countries where women’s liberties are severely restricted, we found that girls are outperforming boys in reading, mathematics, and science literacy by age 15,” said one of the study’s two authors, David Geary, a psychology professor at MU.
The only places where that was not the case were Colombia, Costa Rica, and the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. In the United States and United Kingdom, boys and girls had comparable levels of educational achievement.
But everywhere else, on average, 15-year-old girls do better in all subjects, including science and math.
So why aren’t there more women in tech?
As the researchers write in their paper, this finding “raises the question of why – despite educational opportunities and success – women are under-represented in leadership positions in politics, business, and academia.”
Or, as many have been asking in Silicon Valley lately, why aren’t there more female programmers, engineers, product managers, and tech executives at our companies?
The researchers put forward two theories. One is that, while the average performance of girls is higher, it’s the top-performing individuals who go on to these kinds of leadership positions, and “boys at the highest levels [do] equally well [as] or better than girls at the highest levels.”
The other is that relative performance matters to each individual. If you’re better at language arts you’re more likely to become a humanities major in college; if you’re better at science and math, you’re more likely to become a science, math, or engineering major.
In other words, even if you’re better than most of the boys at math, you still might go into the humanities if those are your strong suit.
The authors acknowledge that there are other issues involved, such as the way cultural norms might feed boys into a “pipeline” of clubs, interests, and majors that culminate in the kinds of skills needed to land a tech job — while girls get directed into other kinds of educational and extracurricular tracks.
Put another way: Between the ages of 15 and 21, most girls face an enormous amount of social and academic pressure to leave science and math. They have to put up with schools, peers, and a society that expect less of them, and people who actively discourage them from pursuing these fields. Despite starting academically ahead, they have to work extra hard just to keep up with the boys, who don’t have to spend half their energy simply justifying their right to be there. Faced with stereotypes, discrimination, exclusion, peer pressure, and more, most girls give up.
But the study didn’t tackle that issue.
The aptitude gap persists
There’s a third possibility, which is that academic performance doesn’t correlate with aptitude, and that from ages 15 to 21, the math-science abilities of boys start to outstrip those of girls.
A blogger who goes by the pen name Scott Alexander has done some interesting, detailed analysis of GRE scores and SAT scores by university department, and has found very strong correlations. Physics and engineering departments have a much higher average score on the math part of the test, and a much smaller number of women, while art history and English literature show the opposite pattern.
Now, GRE scores are taken by college seniors, so that could reflect the benefits of four years of schooling. But SAT tests are usually taken by 17-year-olds, and they show a similar, if slightly weaker, correlation. In other words, Alexander writes, by 11th grade, there is already an aptitude gap between girls and boys in terms of their math abilities.
There are all kinds of ways to argue with that point (going back to the pipeline and stereotype arguments, of course), but it can’t be easily rejected out of hand. Whatever the cause, the gap seems to be there.
If we try to square this two papers, it looks like something happens after the age of 15. Girls, who start out very strong in science and math, gradually drift away from it — for whatever reason — and that causes them to lose ground.
If I were looking to solve the gender gap in tech, I’d start by trying to keep 15-year-old girls engaged with science and math — and prevent people from pushing them out.
The Moneyball opportunity
The Missouri study raises another issue for me. It suggests that Silicon Valley companies, which pride themselves on being meritocracies, are missing a big opportunity.
It’s a competitive job market, which means that many companies would be eager to find a pool of talent that is easier to recruit — and perhaps less expensive — than the usual suspects.
This study shows that there’s an enormous pool of talent like that: women, who for whatever reason, had high levels of academic achievement in science and math early on but wound up going into different fields in college.
Now, granted, many of these talented people will lack the kind of training that most companies need. But with the wealth of coding academies around — many of which are aimed at women — it should be pretty easy to rectify that problem.
You just need to find talented candidates who did well in science and math during high school, regardless of whether they followed up on that interest in college, and then train them up. It’s the Moneyball strategy.
Or, you know, you could just look for culture fit.
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