Gender Gap Study Reveals Boys Best Girls in the Field of Mathematics

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The gender gap continues to be stubbornly constant in math-related subjects. Much fewer women choose to pursue potentially lucrative careers in math, physics, engineering, and computer science in almost every country, as compared to men.

Although initiatives such as providing mentors and role models for girls and taking steps to address prejudices and unconscious biases of gender may be beneficial, their effects are often low. Women are likely to remain outnumbered in math-related fields for decades to come at the current rate of change.

It's not that math is terrible for girls and women. While boys are more likely to perform in math tests than girls, the average difference in gender is small. For example, 39% of 18-year-old girls who studied math at A-level earned an A or A+ in the UK in 2019, compared with 42% of boys. 29% of women reached the top two levels for A-level physics, compared to 28% of boys. But in both subjects, boys outnumbered girls significantly in physics by more than 3:1.

A recent study published in the journal PNAS indicates that the solution may simply be male to female differences in academic ability, but this ability is learning, not mathematics. Studies have consistently demonstrated that in reading and writing, girls and women outperform their male counterparts. In acquiring foreign languages, the females may also be better.

Thomas Breda at the Paris School of Economics and Clotilde Napp at the Paris Dauphine University asked if this male to female reading discrepancy could help to explain the gender gap in STEM careers.

Hundreds of thousands of 15-year-olds take part in the PISA study, run by the OECD, every three years in more than 60 countries. Students complete math, reading and science exams and respond to questions about their future career plans. When they looked at the PISA 2012 results, Breda and Napp realized they were on to something.

Through comparing the grades of each student in reading and math, Breda and Napp found that this "difference score" accurately predicted how likely that student was to decide to undertake more mathematical studies.

The greater the strength of a student in reading is, the less likely they were to pursue a math career, even though their math scores were high as well. This was particularly true for boys and girls alike.

Many researchers who studied women's deficiencies in the physical sciences believe that this is a plausible explanation for the observed changes in work. "This makes a lot of sense," says Sarah Cattan, Associate Director at the London Institute for Fiscal Studies and Head of Education and Skills.

It is controversial that male and female brains also have inherent variations that predispose boys and girls to learn different skill sets. In any case, boys and girls begin differential socialization at a young age and can affect how individuals view their own abilities and how much they engage in different topics.

Ensuring that boys and girls develop a solid foundation in math and reading, and that both sets of skills are given equal status, as well as continuing efforts to eliminate gender stereotypes, will all be important to ensure that all individuals have as many options as possible available to them.

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