For as long as the STEM fields have existed, an ugly stereotype has festered: that math, science and associated subjects are the domains of men. It is traditionally accepted that boys naturally outperform girls in these subjects as if the male gender possesses some ingrained biological affinity for these disciplines that the female lacks.
The stereotype is built on an utterly false foundation. Comprehensive global studies demonstrate not only that girls consistently score higher grades than boys in math and science at school, but that they score higher grades in every subject, and have done so for decades. And this phenomenon isn’t just contained to the USA: similar data has been compiled from countries as diverse as Slovakia, Taiwan and Israel.
On the other hand, boys generally take the lead on standardized tests, including the SATs. This may indicate a gendered difference in learning style, where girls tended towards studying to understand the material (resulting in consistent good grades), while boys placed more emphasis on measurable performance (resulting in high test scores).
Overall, research has shown that girls and boys are similarly capable when it comes to math. Why, then, does this gendered stereotype persist? And what harm is it doing to school students of both genders?
“Believe in yourself” is more than just a hollow platitude. Self-belief directly contributes to school performance: women who believe the stereotype that women are worse at math tend to do worse at math themselves. A study in which women were reminded of this stereotype before sitting examinations found they fared more poorly than women who were not reminded. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
No wonder boys have historically done better than girls on standardized tests: this damaging, insidious belief is everywhere. Men typically rate their own intelligence more highly than women do; parents of both genders attribute higher IQs and better logical-mathematical reasoning abilities to their sons than their daughters. Without even knowing it, parents are fostering in their children an innate belief that girls are inferior to boys in certain fields, and thus, making it so.
This cycle is, of course, most damaging to girls, but there are suggestions that it disadvantages boys too. The attribution by parents of superior natural math abilities to boys means girls may be encouraged to put more effort into study. Some studies think this may account for the higher, more consistent grades girls score throughout their schooling when compared to their male counterparts. In effect, this means that the stereotype prevents both male and female students from reaching their full potential.
The best way to address this disparity is to tackle it at the root. A Science study showed that the math gender gap was more pronounced in countries with greater gender inequality: in more progressive countries such as Sweden and Norway, for example, the gap nearly disappeared. And the USA has made great strides in the past few decades too, with evidence showing there is now little difference in math performance between boys and girls in ten states.
There is still a long way to go before the pernicious stereotype is fully dismantled. Though progress has been made, the harmful echoes of this divisive message will not be silenced until every parent and teacher, every principal and politician, and every boy and girl believe that when it comes to education, all are equal.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.