At my previous learning center, we encountered an exceptionally bright young student who was in Grade 8 at the time. It was evident to us from the very first lesson that she had a great aptitude for the STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), as she could grasp new concepts quickly, had a solid foundation in math, displayed excellent problem-solving skills, and showed a genuine thirst for knowledge. However, her mother approached me, unsure if her daughter should pursue a future in the STEM field. She suggested other possibilities, such as finance, teaching, or art, solely due to one reason: her child was a girl, and girls would have a harder time in STEM fields.
So, are girls less capable of excelling in STEM subjects, particularly math and science? Should they consider careers in these fields? In this blog article, we will explore these questions.
Are there gender differences in academic performance?
The question of gender differences in academic performance is frequently debated. However, several studies have provided evidence that there is no inherent difference in academic abilities between the genders. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) periodically performs math, science, and reading test on over half a million 15-year-olds in 64 countries. Its 2018 report found that while boys outperformed girls in math by a modest amount (5 points), girls and boys had similar performance in science. (As a side note, girls significantly outperformed boys in reading.)
Another study published in the journal Science also showed small amount of difference between girls and boys when it comes to math performance. The researchers carried out a comprehensive meta-analysis, drawing on standardized tests from diverse samples and a wide range of measures from 49 states and the District of Columbia in the United States. The dataset represented over seven million students in grades 2 to 11. The main findings indicate that there are no significant gender differences in math performance that could support the stereotype that males generally perform better than females in this subject. The results revealed that females and males show similar abilities across all grades, suggesting that girls have the potential to excel in mathematics as much as boys.
So, to answer the question of whether girls do worse in math than boys: based on studies and reports, there seems to be little to no difference in the abilities of both males and females in math and sciences. Often, parents worry that girls can’t do math or sciences well in high school or in university. They start to lag behind compared to boys. I find that this is a very prevalent belief in older parents from Asian countries. As research suggests, there is little difference between girls and boys when it comes to innate ability to do math at any stages of their life. The very bright young girl I mentioned above eventually went on to a top university program in Canada, studying computer science, after achieving 95+ average in the last year of her high school. She even attained a couple of university credits while she was in high school!
So, why do some people still believe that girls can’t do math and science?
The stereotype that girls don’t have the ability to excel in math and sciences has its roots in traditional gender roles and expectations, which have been perpetuated by various institutions throughout history for various reasons.
Firstly, the origin of such a stereotype can be traced back to the traditional division of labor. Historically, men have taken on roles associated with physical strength, logic, and problem-solving, while women have been assigned to tasks related to caretaking and emotions. Many occupations involving science, such as medicine and engineering, were the sole domain of men until the 20th century. This historical pattern instilled the belief that men are more capable than women in fields such as math and science, giving rise to this stereotype.
Secondly, research conducted in the early 20th century reinforced the stereotype. A number of studies from this time period purported that women were biologically less adept in math and science than men. Since these findings conformed to people’s beliefs and attitudes at that time, such claims were easily absorbed into the mainstream consciousness. Although modern research has debunked these notions, they continue to linger in some people’s minds.
Educational institutions can also perpetuate this stereotype. Teachers, who may unintentionally hold gender biases, can treat male and female students differently in math and science classes, providing more support or encouragement to boys. Teaching materials and curricula may also emphasize male scientists and mathematicians, reinforcing the idea that STEM subjects are inherently male-dominated fields. For example, one Malaysia English textbook depicts boys in a predominant position (being questioners in both tables) than girls.
(Curtesy of Gender Bias in Curriculum, J Rong, 2021)
Moreover, the media plays a significant role in perpetuating this stereotype as well. Movies, television shows, and advertisements used to portray women in nurturing roles and men as problem-solvers or experts in technical fields. TV shows and ads in the early 20th century were rife with gender stereotypes, portraying women as subservient to men. One ad in 1940s even proclaimed, “Women need to live up to men’s standards”. While earnest effort in media and entertainment industry has been made recently to represent women in STEM-related occupations, the earlier stereotypical representation in the media in the past has reinforced the stereotype that girls are worse in STEM subjects when compared to boys.
(Curtesy of audio network, THE HISTORY OF WOMEN IN ADVERTISING)
Lastly, societal expectations and pressures contribute to this stereotype. Girls might be discouraged from pursuing STEM subjects due to fear of judgment or ridicule, while boys might be pressured to excel as it is deemed a more “masculine” pursuit. Parents who believe boys should go to STEM fields and girls into non-STEM fields may influence the decision that girls make, as I have described in the beginning. This limitation of opportunities can create a cycle that discourages girls from pursuing math and science careers and ultimately reinforces the stereotype.
Gender stereotypes and their effects on academic choices
Gender stereotypes have been a significant contributing factor to the belief that girls and boys have different academic strengths and weaknesses. These stereotypes can have a negative impact on children’s self-esteem and academic choices, as they may begin to believe that they are not good at a particular subject or field because of their gender.
For example, the stereotype that boys are better at math and science has persisted for decades, even though research consistently shows that there is little to no difference in actual ability. This stereotype can lead to girls becoming less confident in their math and science skills and, as a result, may be less likely to pursue STEM careers. When a girl is repeatedly told that girls are not good at STEM subjects, she may attribute a bad test score on the fact that she is a girl and girls are not good at math and science. Thinking that girls are not good at STEM, she fails to embrace a growth mindset or reflect on how she can do better in her test next time. As such, bad test scores lead to reinforced stereotype and lower self-efficacy, which lead to more bad test scores.
Empowering girls to embrace STEM fields
Despite debunking the myth of gender differences in academic performance, women are still underrepresented in STEM fields. Encouraging girls to explore their interests in these areas can help address this imbalance and contribute to a more diverse and innovative workforce.
Parents and educators should create an environment that supports girls’ interests in STEM fields, regardless of society’s expectations or stereotypes. Here are some suggestions on how to do this:
- Know the fact that gender difference in academic performance is a myth. Parents who believe in the stereotype can inadvertently communicate that to their children.
- Acknowledge your child’s interest in subjects like math and science, rather than framing it as “boyish”.
- Expose your child to positive role models in STEM fields, such as female scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. This can help inspire and motivate her to pursue her interests in these areas.
- Encourage participation in extracurricular activities such as science clubs, coding workshops, and robotics competitions to build their confidence and skills in STEM subjects.
- Help your child develop their problem-solving and critical thinking skills, which are crucial in STEM fields. If your child is showing a high math aptitude, math contests might be of interest to her.
- Discuss the many career opportunities available within STEM fields and the impact they can have on the world, helping your child see the value and potential in these areas.
Of course, ultimately, the decision to pursue STEM fields is up to your child. But, she should be able to make the decision without undue influence from gender stereotypes.
Conclusion: Debunking the Myths and Breaking Stereotypes
There is no inherent gender difference in academic performance; hence, we shouldn’t limit girls to arts and languages or discourage them from pursuing STEM fields. Gender stereotypes have long influenced society’s expectations of academic abilities, negatively affecting both boys and girls. Instead, it’s crucial to acknowledge and celebrate the talents and interests of every individual and help young people realize their full potential, regardless of gender.
Encourage your children, whether girls or boys, to explore subjects they’re passionate about and support them as they break through the barriers that society’s expectations may have placed in their path. By doing so, you will help to cultivate a more inclusive, diverse, and innovative future for all.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.