What You Need to Know about the U.S. Gender Gap in Science and Math
How is it that Arab countries, which appear very unequal between the sexes in a cultural context, have girls outperforming boys in science and math? And by comparison, in the United States where the sexes are more socially equal, its boys who outperform girls in science? These were just two of the fascinating questions posed regarding the results of a test given in 65 developed countries by the Organization for economic Cooperation and Development. The 2012 test found that among a sample of 15-year-olds around the world, girls generally outperformed boys in science — but not in the United States.
Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the tests for the O.E.C.D., explained that the gender gap arises in math and science because different countries provide different incentives for learning. In the United States, he said, boys are more likely than girls to “see science as something that affects their life.” Then there is the “stereotype threat.” However in the Middle East, “for girls in some Arab countries, education is the only way to move up the social structure. It is one way to earn social mobility.” The test results demonstrate that women in Russia, Asia, and the Middle East have more cultural incentives to enter math and science professions than the U.S.
The O.E.C.D. recommended that the U.S. narrow the gap by pushing parents and teachers to encourage girls to pursue more science and math studies, recruit female role models in math and science to mentor budding junior scientists and mathematicians, and to work towards a “better balance in the gender composition of teachers” in those fields. This last comment is one of the most challenging aspects of the problem.
A recent Slate article shed even more light on the gender composition of teachers in this country. “The American Association of University Women has found that college students still ‘view science and math as male fields and humanities and art as female.’ Girls have more positive feelings about reading than boys do. Fathers are less likely to read to their children than are mothers. The two most gender-lopsided academic disciplines in the U.S. are engineering and teaching. Men make up 42 percent of secondary school teachers, but just 18 percent of primary and middle school teachers and 2 percent of kindergarten teachers. U.S. schools don’t just need more women teaching math and science—they need more men teaching just about everything else.”
The most alarming aspect is how early girls learn the ‘stereotype threat’ in the US that Schleicher referred to. “We see that very early in childhood — around age 4 — gender roles in occupations appear to be formed,” said Christianne Corbett, co-author of the 2010 report “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.” “Women are less likely to go into science careers, although they are clearly capable of succeeding.” You can see evidence of the stereotyping with a simple walk down the aisles of a toy store. The “girl” aisles are typically in pink and include dolls, ponies and traditional girl play of makeup and baking. The “boy” aisles have cars, primary colors, action figures and tools. If part of the issue is giving young girls access to how math and science affects their lives, then parents need to look beyond the pink surface.
The answer to narrowing the gender gap in math and science isn’t a simple one. But there are steps parents can take to help their children understand how math and science impact their daily lives. Whether it’s learning how saving allowance can buy a new toy or how baking cupcakes is actually a series of chemical reactions, it’s possible to expose children to how important math and science are. It’s not about what a girl or boy “should” learn based on their gender. It’s about teaching them that knowledge of the sciences is important regardless of sex. From the results of the O.E.C.D. study, we can see that it’s an international concern as well.
“Girls Lead in Science Exam, but Not in the United States” nytimes.com. Retrieved Oct. 13 2013
“The U.S. Has One of the Worst Science Gender Gaps in the Developed World” slate.com Retrieved Oct. 13 2013
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