Tuesday, May 10, 2005

How to Reduce the Math Gender Gap

The gender gap in math is widening, with young women lagging men in numbers and performance beginning in the middle school years, through college, into graduate education, and on to tenured faculty. What are possible causes of this discrepancy and is there anything we can do about it?

First the data: In early elementary school, girls and boys achieve at similar levels. By middle school and high school, however, the gap appears. Boys consistently outperform girls on the Math section of the SAT, the AP Calculus, Computer Science, and Physics exams, and at the college level, in one federal study, 44% of male science majors chose engineering, compared to 12% of females. The trend holds among advanced degrees and tenured faculty.

What are possible factors at work?

1. Social and Environmental Factors

Do you remember when "Teen Talk Barbie" briefly said "Math Class is tough!" before she was removed from the shelves? Not surprisingly, there are both home and school (peer, teacher) social factors that can discourage girls from higher level mathematics. In this study from Penn State, a father's "gender stereotype" regarding math ability appeared to correlate well with a child's interest:

The amount of time mothers spent doing math activities with their children, didn't seem to account for the difference (mothers spent more time with their daughters doing math activities in the early grades), although by late elementary school, both parents were more likely to be purchasing math and science items for their sons rather than their daughters.

2. Biological Factors

Biological factors got Harvard University president Larry Summers into hot water, but perhaps that was more for his extrapolation and clumsiness than anything else. The truth is, we are all biologically different, and understanding how differently we perceive and learn material provides valuable information about how to design individualized learning approaches.

There are some gender-related differences in the way information is processed, and these results should be properly understood as averaged results from small groups. fMRI studies should never be mistaken for large scale population studies or genetic imperatives. Check out the fMRI results below for men and women navigating their way out of a virtual maze.

The different areas of brain that light up suggest that an averaged group of men and women tended to undertake different strategies to navigate their way out of a virtual maze.

What about that other study, you ask? - the one that, using a slightly different task, found that women and men both used the hippocampus to recall position? Well, on close reading of the methods of that study (sorry, only abstract online), this study was different because the researchers were more directive in telling their subjects how to learn the routes (e.g. "notice where the vehicles come from") and a second task directly tested recall of an aerial map.

So it may be that in general, when asked to navigate their way out of a virtual maze, women are more likely to use landmarks ("I'll make two left turns after the white house") than picture an aerial map, but when more directly instructed, they can use the aerial strategy just like most male subjects. The distinction is an important one - because the aerial map would appear to be a better approach. If you miss one of the landmarks or turns, you may still find your destination by geometry.

3. Practice, Practice, Practice

Finally, there are various lines of data that suggest that by the time young men have chosen their careers, they have had more spatial practice than women. Boys are more likely to play video games, tinker with building projects, and have models or mechanical gadgets as hobbies (the latter could also account for the buying preference of parents). These types of practice could account for the lead men have in studies of imagined rotation of objects (verified in many different research paradigms). Interestingly, the gap between mental rotation performance in men and women can be narrowed if women are provided with more spatial practice (computer simulation or sketching). This suggests that more training and 'playing' with hand and eye activities may narrow the gender gap in mathematics and math-related disciplines.

The Gender Gap in Math and Science
Educators Revisit Girls Loss of Math, Science Interest
Boston.com Women and science: the real issue
Penn State Gender Issues and Math
Gender and Spatial Navigation
Scaffolding Female Engineering Students in Spatial Reasoning
Sketching improves Spatial Visualization for Men and Women


  1. I'm not sure what is meant by father's gender stereotype-- does that refer to the father's beliefs or to how gender-stereotypical his own interests are?

  2. The father's beliefs - or how stereotyped the Dad was about feeling math was for boys.

  3. Anonymous9:40 AM

    I would like to know more about the mother's gender stereotype. Recent neurobiological studies suggest that the mother's genetic input is more important to brain formation than the father's. Clearly there is more involved here than social conditioning. A fascinating recipe indeed!

  4. Yes, that would be interesting. It looked as if Mom was a more dominant influence in teaching at the younger ages (K-3), but it was interesting to note that Moms spent more time with their daughters doing math activities at the early ages.

    Now, the math and visual spatial problem solving also gets more complex in the middle school years - is it possible that the Moms had lesser roles at those ages because of less expertise for those activities themselves? I can see how the gender gap could be self-perpetuating.