Are Girls Discouraged from Math and Science?

pretty young college student writing on the chalkboard/blackboar
Women continue to be underrepresented in science and mathematics careers in North America, and the latest research suggests that one root of the problem may be found as far back as elementary school.

Girls in Science

The data from the most recent Statistics Canada Household Survey, conducted in 2011 (another is taking place in 2016), show that only 31 per cent of university graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are women. Even more discouraging, women comprised only 21 per cent of the Canadian STEM workforce in 2014. This is despite ongoing efforts by universities and colleges to recruit more women to these fields and to spread the word through groups such as Women in Engineering.

To what can we attribute this lack of interest or uptake? In 2010, women, on average, were still paid about 7.5 per cent less than men for STEM jobs, so this might account for part of it. However, a 2015 study done by researchers at the University of Warwick in England and the University of Tel Aviv indicates that school experiences may also have a large impact on a youngster’s success at various subjects and their interest, which ultimately affects career trajectory.

“On the anonymous math test, the girls outscored the boys, but the boys had higher grades on the math tests where the teachers knew the names of the students.”

Gender Bias in Schools

Warwick economist Victor Lavy and Tel Aviv economist Edith Sand studied three groups of Israeli students beginning in Grade 6. The students were given two exams, one graded by teachers who didn’t know their names and the other graded by teachers who did.

On the anonymous math test, the girls outscored the boys, but the boys had higher grades on the math tests where the teachers knew the names of the students. This disparity wasn’t evident in other subjects, such as English. It appears that teachers overestimate the boys’ math skills and underestimate the girls’ prowess.

The researchers followed these students through high school, and it appeared that the way the teachers viewed their students’ youthful abilities had an impact on their later attitude toward math, their performance and subject choices.

In results of national exams that students take in junior high and high school, for example, the boys who had been encouraged as youngsters did much better. The girls who had been discouraged by teachers as youngsters were much less likely to take advanced classes in math.

“These results suggest that teachers’ biased behavior at early stage of schooling have long run implications for occupational choices and earnings at adulthood, because enrolment in advanced courses in math and science in high school is a prerequisite for post-secondary schooling in engineering, computer science and so on,” the authors wrote.

Gender Differences in Mathematics

In a 2003 study, undertaken by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), researchers used OECD tests and surveys to assess math performance by 15-year-olds. It found that girls did worse than boys in math even among high-achievers. They were also much more likely than boys to report that they just weren’t good at math and were less likely to agree that math was one of their better school subjects.

“Gender disparities in performance do not stem from innate differences in aptitude, but rather from students’ attitudes towards learning and their behaviour in school, from how they choose to spend their leisure time, and from the confidence they have,” the report said.

In Britain, the boys outscored the girls in math, but there was a very high correlation between performance on math and science testing and self-confidence about these subjects. When attitude was taken into account, the girls did better than the boys.

Alun Jones, head of the Girls’ School Association in Britain, told the Guardian, “We’re dealing with centuries of gender bias and what people and parents think and say, often without realizing it, does influence children’s expectations of themselves.”

Girls Excelling in Math and Science: Are Girls Getting Enough Encouragement?

These studies are important because a body of research has demonstrated that teachers’ expectations can have a major influence on whether students shows talent in a subject.

In a study from 1966, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson chose 20 per cent of students randomly and told their teachers that these youngsters had done extremely well on a test showing intellectual potential.

The impact, called the Pygmalion effect, was that this 20 per cent showed greater IQ gains than those whom the teachers believed were simply average.

If expectations have such as strong impact on performance, math teachers need to be much more conscious of the messages they convey to their students, both consciously and unconsciously. It is important for them to be aware of the potential that girls have to do as well, if not better, in math than boys and to begin to convey this confidence in girls’ abilities in the classroom.