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Stereotype of Mathematical Inferiority Still Plagues Girls

By Sean Cavanagh — August 22, 2008 7 min read
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Educators and advocates have been pointing to the data and trying to get the word out for years: Girls perform as well as boys in mathematics. A recent study, which shows matching test scores in that subject between the sexes, appears to bolster the argument.

But even if the latest research helps shape public opinion on gender issues, school officials still face a major task in overcoming the stereotypes held by parents, teachers, and even girls themselves that boys are more suited to math-heavy studies and professions, particularly in such areas as engineering and physics, observers say.

The recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California, Berkeley, is generally consistent with research dating to the 1990s showing both genders performing at roughly the same level in math. In contrast to some past findings, however, it shows males having no advantage over females in high school in that subject. Over the past few decades, young women have made strides in taking an increasing number of advanced math and science courses in high school, overcoming a deficit that some had cited as an explanation for higher male scores on standardized tests, the authors say.

Despite that progress, researchers say there is ample evidence that educators and policymakers should still be concerned about the waning of girls’ interest in certain math-related subjects as they move through the pipeline. The consequences of those trends are reflected in the shortage of women in the highest levels of certain science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM-related fields.

“We have to get the word out to parents and teachers,” said Janet S. Hyde, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin and the study’s lead author. “Stereotypes can still have an influence, as girls get on the math and science track. They’re rarer today, but they still happen.”

No Problem-Solving?

Her study, published in the July issue of the journal Science, examines male and female students’ math scores on tests used by 10 states: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Wyoming, representing a testing population of more than 7 million students. The results showed boys and girls performing at very similar levels across grades, even at upper grades, the authors noted.

The study explores another major issue: whether there are gender differences among the highest-performing students in math. The researchers were able to examine results from a single state, Minnesota, and found that among white students, high-performing males outperformed females in that category by a small margin. But those scores were reversed among Asian-Americans in the very highest-scoring category, with females topping male scores. Ms. Hyde said those results suggest that cultural differences between demographic groups could explain some of the previously documented gaps between high-achieving males and females.

Overall, differences in math performance are “insufficient to explain lopsided gender patterns in participation in some STEM fields,” the study concludes.

The researchers also sought to probe whether boys showed stronger ability in performing complex problem-solving tasks in math, as has been demonstrated in some earlier scholarship. But they were unexpectedly foiled in that task. Most of the state tests studied had no items requiring those complex skills—despite their importance in STEM professions, Ms. Hyde said.

View From the Top

A recent study found that while high-performing white boys in Minnesota outperformed their female peers in 11th grade, that gender gap was not pronounced among Asian-American students.

BRIC ARCHIVE

NOTE: Too few students from other ethnic groups scored at these levels to produce statistics for this table.

SOURCE: “Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance,” Science magazine, July 2008

The public and policymakers often mistakenly assume that attracting females, and retaining them, across all areas of math and science is a problem, said Jacquelynne S. Eccles, a professor of psychology, women’s studies, and education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, when in fact, that shortage is most pronounced in certain subjects, such as engineering and physics. Many females avoid those areas not because of lack of academic skill, but because they see those professions as male-dominated and incompatible with their interests, which could include raising a family, she asserted.

“It’s not that they’re not engineers because they don’t want to take math,” Ms. Eccles said. “They’re not taking math because they don’t want to be engineers. You have to change their view of engineers.”

Ms. Eccles’ view appears to be borne out in the statistics. On one prominent measure of academic skill, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, males outscored females slightly in math at ages 9, 13, and 17, according to long-term-trend results, though that gap has declined over the past 30 years in the oldest age group.

Females today complete advanced math courses at about equal rates as males, according to a 2008 federal report. They also earn more bachelor’s degrees than males in certain science fields, such as biological sciences and chemistry, it found.

But males, the report said, continue to dominate in engineering, computer sciences, and physics degrees, subjects often cited by business and political leaders as crucial to the nation’s economic health and technological innovation. In not drawing more females into math and science, the country is squandering human capital, the thinking goes.

Careers Into Classroom

Girls would benefit from public-information campaigns and high school counseling that make it clear that women can thrive in science and engineering fields, Ms. Eccles argued. Schools and colleges can also do more to encourage women to persevere in math by encouraging females to work together and help each other in those classes, said Chandra Muller, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Ms. Muller is studying male and female students’ transition to college, and their interests in math and science studies, under a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Female students in high school and college tend to benefit from “having enough girls around them who are doing well” in math, Ms. Muller said. Such strategies move “beyond tokenism” in encouraging girls and “shape the climate” of the classroom, she said.

Still, it’s easy for females to feel out of place in school and college math classes, said Dara Shifrer, a graduate student who works with Ms. Muller. Ms. Shifrer says she was encouraged to take math seriously by her father, an engineer. When she reached college, she majored in math, though she was dismayed that so few females were in her classes. She had trouble envisioning what math-related careers were available to her after college, and the ones she heard about didn’t seem appealing.

After college, Ms. Shifrer worked in human resources, then spent four years as a middle school math teacher. She says she tried to keep girls in her classroom engaged in the subject by calling on them regularly. Schools could do more to stoke girls’ math interests by talking up the professional options available to them, she said.

“It’s important to bring careers into the classroom. That’s not happening,” Ms. Shifrer said. “Kids still don’t see how [math] is valuable.”

She remembers her students being strongly influenced by their parents’ attitudes toward math. A recent study found that fathers, in particular, exert a strong influence on whether daughters become keen on math, and that parents tend to exhort boys more in that subject. (“Experiments Aim to Ease Effects of ‘Stereotype Threat’,” Oct. 24, 2007.)

The question of whether males and females have different ability in math and science emerged in force in 2005, when then-Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers speculated that differences in “intrinsic aptitude” between men and women, particularly at the upper levels of performance, could explain the dearth of females in tenured postsecondary jobs in science and engineering.

Ms. Muller and others say where differences in test results exist, the data also show that males tend to represent a larger share of both the very high and very low performers than do females in math.

Finding Value in Study

The recent study should compel policymakers to focus on motivating females of all ability levels to take math seriously, the Texas researcher said.

“Yes, girls are making inroads,” she said. “But there are a lot of things that go into choosing a career other than [high] test scores. ... We should still be concerned about girls. There’s huge attrition among girls throughout the pipeline.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Stereotype of Mathematical Inferiority Still Plagues Girls

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