One of the great head-scratchers of our time is that women are generally better than men in math and science when measured by school grade. Yet it tends to be the men who go and do all of the interesting and well-paid engineering and science jobs. Various explanations are put forward for this, including "Men just like this sorta stuff more" all the way to, "well, D’Oh, it's the patriarchy."

A new paper in Nature Communications gives us an entirely different explanation, that of David Ricardo on trade. This is the only nontrivial and non-obvious result in all of the social sciences, comparative advantage. It’s nontrivial as it can and does explain this gender segregation and its non-obviousness is shown by how many get it wrong – Peter Navarro and President Trump on the original subject of trade, for example.

The usual formulation is that everyone should do what they’re best at and trade the result, this will make us all richer. This explanation fails when someone asks, "Well, what if someone is better at everything? Where does this leave me?" To which the answer is this: It’s not about what other people can do at all, but what you can. It’s easier to understand, as we should all do what we’re least bad at. We can all do various things to varied levels of competence. If we each do what we’re least bad at and swap the results then we’ll collectively be as well off as we can be.

The Nature paper tells us that women are better, as measured by those school grades, than men at everything. This is, as with all these discussions, about population averages and is no guide whatsoever to the skills, interests, or talents of an individual. Nor is it a guide to what choices any one person should make either. Women are also better, or their advantage over men is greater, in non-STEM subjects than in STEM.

If this is so, and we add our Ricardo on trade knowledge to it, what do we get?

Men are less bad at STEM than they are at everything else. Women are better at everything, that’s absolute advantage, but they’re that greater better at non-STEM, the comparative advantage. Thus men should be doing the STEM, women the non-STEM, and we’ll swap the results and that’s how we’ll all become collectively better off.

None of this preludes the idea that there’s peer pressure out there, inappropriate ideals of femininity being force-fed, direct discrimination, or even the patriarchy messing with a just world. Yet this explanation does have one advantage in that we know, absolutely, that the underlying concept is correct. And we have the empirical evidence that women are indeed better at all those test scores and that’s all we need to explain the pattern we see in the world around us. Occam’s Razor suggesting that this is a sufficient explanation given that it explains reality with minimal working parts to the argument.

Another way of putting it is that women, being better at everything, should be doing the stuff men find too difficult – and put that way, who would argue? Perhaps the authors of the paper in Nature Communications who seem not to have noted it but anyone else.

Tim Worstall (@worstall) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute. You can read all his pieces at The Continental Telegraph.