theatlantic.com/health

Yesterday, La Nación published an article on the Ministry of Education’s recently released 2014-2015 data on the number of students enrolled in university degree programs in Argentina. The only demographic data included in the study appears to be the gender breakdown for each course of study, with a significant part of the article speculating what these numbers imply about potential cognitive differences between men and women.

A team of La Nación analysts interpreted these numbers, calling the data an “X-Ray” on people enrolled in Argentine universities.

What’s Going On?

The La Nación piece opens by saying the top three careers chosen by women are law, nursing, and psychology; the top three for men are law, business administration, and accounting. Never does it reflect that there are more women than men in each of the latter’s top three fields, comprising 56, 51, and 56 percent of students respectively, and only later does it mention that business administration and accounting are women’s fourth and fifth most popular choices.

Indeed, across the board in both years, more women are enrolled in college than men: public universities are 58 percent women, and make up 57 percent of private universities. Of the top ten most popular fields overall, nine of them are majority women.

The article goes on to point out where you can “most notice the difference between the careers chosen by men in comparison to women” by noting the distribution of all women in Argentine universities enrolled in six main fields, then contrasting this to men.

In order of decreasing percentage:

Women

Social and Legal Sciences (45 percent); Health Sciences (34 percent); Arts and Humanities (8 percent); Computing, Engineering, and Architecture (7 percent), Science (4 percent), Other (1 percent).

Men

Social and Legal Sciences (41 percent); Computing, Engineering, and Architecture (25 percent), Health Sciences (21 percent), Arts and Humanities (7 percent), Sciences (4 percent), and Other (1 percent).

La Nación Makes Strong Assertions About the Shortage of Women in STEM Careers

It appears that a large percentage of women choose social and health sciences, while men are more likely to choose technical, quantitative fields. Yet preference does not indicate ability, as the article goes on to assume.

Also note that these percentages reflect the distribution within each gender and not the percentage of men vs. women in each field. While a smaller percentage of women may choose technical fields, this does not mean fewer do than men in careers such as urban planning and architecture.

For its only semi-professional opinion regarding this data, the La Nación piece includes a rather unfortunate quote by Paula Dubcovsky of the University of Belgrano Student Orientation Service that confirms the bias that this selective representation of data implies.

According to Dubcovksky, “Men seem to be more rational and have a greater capacity for processing abstract information. This may be one reason why many of them prefer careers linked to the field of mathematics and business.”

Here, Dubkovsky selectively ignores that even though men dominate computer science and systems engineering, women comprise a majority in the studies of urban planning and architecture, medicine, kinesiology, bioengineering, biology, biochemistry, and chemistry. This doesn’t seem to suggest that men are more “rational,” whatever that means. And as for this masculine “abstract information” superpower — well, let’s not forget about women’s majority in law and business.

Dubcovsky also says, “According to neuroscience studies, women are better able to identify the emotions and thoughts of other people and respond to them with the appropriate emotion. They are predisposed to better understand other people, predict their behavior, and connect emotionally with them. This ability of ’empathy’ might explain why women choose mostly humanistic careers.”

Mysteriously, both La Nación and Dubcovsky fail to cite these “neuroscience studies.”

Correlation Doesn’t Equal Causation: A STEM Lesson

The Ministry of Education’s data on gender differences in chosen careers has great potential for providing insights of why more men succeed in STEM careers than women. Though there is abundant evidence that men and women understand mathematical concepts equally well at a biological level, fewer women in Argentine universities study computer science and systems engineering. And despite their domination of medicine in university, women in Argentina comprise only 29 percent of researchers in the private sector, which provides higher salaries and better opportunities than governmental employment.

Given the Ministry’s data, is La Nación productive in including Dubcovsky’s opinion that Argentine men have a fundamental advantage in rational thought? The numbers are there, you can decide for yourself.