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Are boys really better than girls at math and science?

Published on Psychology Today

You’ve probably heard the common stereotype somewhere at some time that boys are better than girls at math and science. As a scientist (and a woman), every time I hear this kind of claim, it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. But regardless of whether or not I want to accept it, as a professor in a STEM field (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), all I need to do is look around me to see that men are indeed more represented than are women. In my own discipline of psychology, while 76 percent of people who get their Ph.D.’s are women (Willyard, 2011), only 33 percent of psychology professors at Ph.D.-granting universities are women (Williams & Ceci, 2012). These sad statistics don’t apply to just psychology: Women only make up 23% of STEM occupations in the United States more broadly (Wise, 2017).

If men are indeed better than women at math and science, then maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising that men make up more of the jobs in STEM fields than do women. But it turns out that gender differences in math and related spatial abilities aren’t largely evident until children reach adolescence (Miller & Halpern, 2014). In a large study looking at over a thousand school-aged children between first and sixth grades, researchers found very few gender differences in children’s math skills (Hutchison, Lyons, & Ansari, 2018). Furthermore, another study looking at children in the first to third grades reported that girls do just as well as boys in math and perform better than boys in other subjects like reading (Miller & Halpern, 2014). This research suggests that girls start out performing just as well as boys in math.

So why do things change as kids get older? One potential reason is that children begin to conform to common stereotypes, or our expectations about how boys and girls should perform in math and science. Indeed, while there are no actual gender differences in how boys and girls perform in math in elementary school, parents generally expect boys to outperform girls, starting when children are in kindergarten and first grade (Entwisle & Baker, 1983; Miller & Halpern, 2014). And parents’ expectations can have a real impact on the way children behave. One recent study showed that girls’ assessments of their own math ability was related to whether their mothers held gender stereotypes about math; the more mothers thought math was something boys were better at, the worse their daughters felt about their own math abilities (Tomasetto, Mirisola, Galdi, & Cadinu, 2015).

Further, being the type of person who is good at math or science—and even being the type of person who is smart—is something girls identify with less and less as they get older. One very recent study showed that by the time girls are 6 or 7 years of age, they are becoming less and less interested in games that are designed for “really smart” kids, and they are less likely to associate being smart with being a girl (Bian, Leslie, & Cimpian, 2017). If, as they reach adolescence, girls aren’t identifying with STEM topics, it could make it much less likely that they will feel confident enough to pursue careers in these fields. Getting girls to identify with math and science at an earlier age could be vital to changing this trajectory. But how?

One way is to encourage girls to get involved in math and science without necessarily tying it to their identity. In a recent study designed to teach 4-year-olds how to engage in the scientific method, researchers randomly assigned boys and girls to hear different kinds of language about the task. Some of the children were told that they would be “doing science,” while others were told that they would “be a scientist”. Girls who were given language about doing science persisted in the task for longer than the girls who were told to “be scientists.” The researchers concluded that since girls don’t necessarily identify with science and math, asking them to be scientists—and hence, tying it to their identity—isn’t all that productive; to get them interested in actual science and math tasks, focusing on using language that emphasizes the value of the task itself might be the most beneficial (Rhodes, Leslie, Yee, and Saunders, 2019).

Another way for parents to encourage enthusiasm about math and science at home is to be mindful of their own attitudes about math, and how they express those attitudes to their children. For example, staying away from stereotypes that associate boys with math and science and not girls can go a long way. Research has shown that there is a greater gender gap in math performance in countries that have more gender inequality in general, presumably because boys are more encouraged to engage in subjects like math and science more than girls (Miller & Halpern, 2014). This can be particularly important to keep in mind for middle to high income families: In a report of over 10,000 school districts in the USA from 2008-2015, researchers reported that the math achievement gap varies between school districts, with wider gaps in socioeconomically advantaged districts (Reardon, Fahle, Kalogrides, Podolsky, & Zarate, 2018).

Further, not being afraid of math yourself can have a big impact on how your children perform in their own math classes. Indeed, children who have parents who are anxious about math—what researchers call “math anxiety”—perform worse in math at school than children who have parents who aren’t anxious about math. Importantly, this relation is evident as early as the first grade. One way to get over math anxiety is by making math more of a fun activity that parents and kids can do together at home. One group of researchers provided evidence for this by giving math-anxious parents an app that they could use at home with their 1st graders; the app provided parents and children with different kinds of math games that they could do together. After using the app for a short period of time, parents reported feeling less math anxiety, and on top of that, their children performed better in math at school. These results were still evident two years later, even after the families stopped using the app (Schaeffer, Rozek, Berkowitz, Levine, & Beilock, 2018).

Besides specialized apps, there are more direct ways parents can help promote enthusiasm for math and science. Researchers have found that mothers who frequently engage in counting objects, or labeling the numbers of objects at home have children who perform better in math at preschool (Casey et al., 2018). Also, playing with shape sorters, or simply pointing out the shape of objects and their dimensions—using words like square, triangle, and circle, or spatial language like bent, curvy, tall, and short—can help draw attention to the spatial features of objects and toys. Importantly, parents more often use this kind of spatial language with boys than with girls, so paying special attention to engage in these activities with both boys and girls is important (Pruden & Levine, 2017).

Altogether, we have a long way to go to improve the gender gap in math and science and ultimately, the representation of women in STEM occupations. But, a great deal of recent attention and effort has gone into helping solve the problem, so hopefully there is a clearing in the path ahead. Helping girls to identify with math and science early in development is an important first step. There is evidence that efforts like this have merit: According to a recent meta-analysis of 78 different studies of children’s drawings spanning 50 years, researchers reported that while children still more often depict scientists as male than female, the trend is changing and has become more gender diverse over time (Miller, Nolla, Eagly, & Uttal, 2018). In fact, some toy makers have recently noticed the political push for representing women in STEM fields, and companies like Lego have introduced toys that depict female characters as scientists. Mattel also now makes a “Scientist Career” Barbie doll that comes equipped with a lab coat and microscope. Besides encouraging girls to engage in STEM activities during childhood, we can also go a long way to improve the representation of women in STEM by providing support for the ones who already have careers in the area, particularly after they become mothers. A recent study showed that nearly half of female scientists leave their full time jobs after they have a baby (Cech & Blair-Loy, 2019). This suggests that there is much work to be done, and concentrating our efforts on both encouraging young girls and providing support for women who have already chosen careers in science and math are necessary in order to clear the path forward for women in STEM.

Photo: geralt/Pixabay


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