Girls Like Biology, Boys Like Physics? AP Data Hint at Preferences

By Erik W. Robelen — February 15, 2012 2 min read
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We all have our stereotypes about which subjects appeal more to girls or boys. Well, in perusing a new report on the Advanced Placement program, I was intrigued to discover some hard data to help shed light on the matter. In addition to reporting participation on AP exams by racial and ethnic groups, the College Board includes the gender breakdown for all subjects tested.

Some of what I learned may not surprise readers. Males dominate AP Computer Science and all three physics courses, for instance. Females dominate AP Art History and English Language and Composition.

But not all of the findings were obvious, and a few were even a little puzzling.

(Note: The data in this blog post all reflect the gender breakdown of AP tests taken by public-school graduates from the class of 2011. My source is the College Board’s 8th annual “AP Report to the Nation.”)

Participation in the popular Calculus AB program was about evenly divided, but in the Calculus BC course, males were more heavily weighted (59 percent) than females. (Calculus BC covers all of the content in the AB course, plus additional material.)

Meanwhile, AP Biology was more popular with females (59 percent), while males were apparently more into AP Music Theory (58 percent). AP Statistics is pretty evenly divided, with 52 percent female.

One striking finding is that in a majority of subjects, the gender preference appears to be fairly pronounced. In my not-very-scientific approach, I decided to count the number of AP subjects in which one gender represented at least 55 percent of test-takers.

The result? (Drumroll, please...) Twenty-three out of 37 AP subjects tested.

For more analysis of the latest “AP Report to the Nation,” check out the EdWeek story, as well as this blog post, which takes a closer look at trends in AP participation, subject by subject. (Teaser: Subjects including geography, environmental science, and Chinese are rapidly growing in popularity.)

Back to gender differences, here’s a sampling of subjects in which they seemed pretty significant for the class of 2011.

What girls like:
• Art history: 66 percent female
• Biology: 59 percent female
• English literature and composition: 63 percent female
• French language and culture: 69 percent female
• Psychology: 63 percent female
• Spanish Language: 63 percent female
• Studio Art: Drawing Portfolio: 74 percent female

What boys like:
• Calculus BC, 59 percent male
• Computer Science A: 80 percent male
• Computer Science AB: 86 percent male
• Music Theory: 58 percent male
• Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism: 77 percent male
• Physics C: Mechanics: 74 percent male

Among the AP subjects in which gender differences seemed marginal were ‘Calculus AB,’ Chemistry, European History, ‘Latin:Vergil,’ Statistics, and U.S. Government and Politics.

So, what does it all mean? Post a comment and let us know!

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.