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The Gender Gap in Math and Science


New research on girls' performance in math and science shows that the achievement gap between the sexes has widened. Some speculate that societal influences such as stereotypes and unconscious biases are the cause of the increasing gap, while others claim that genetic differences in the way male and female brains function is directly related to performance levels.

Do girls and boys perform differently in some subjects as a result of societal or genetic influences? What teaching methods are most successful in encouraging both sexes to achieve in any subject?


While I am a science teacher now, as a learner my strongest subjects are math and science. I am a female. From even my personal perspective, the assertion that the gender achievement gap is due to genetic influence does not make sense. While my specialty is biochemistry and not neurobiology or human genetics, from a scientific perspective I have yet to have read any study that convinces me that the gap may be due to genetics. What I do know from my teaching experience is that both girls and boys have a range in their strengths, even within one subject. For example, if we are studying chemistry, one girl student may be best at balancing chemical equations, using mathematics. Another female student may be best at viewing the conceptual picture of what happens during a chemical reaction and explaining it. Furthermore, while conceptually boys and girls may have equal potential in all subjects, girls and boys do learn differently. If learning styles are not taken into account, and math and science courses are taught in a way that favors boys' learning styles, then it makes sense that boys would outperform girls in that situation. I would not hypothesize that the difference in learning styles is due to genetics, although it may be. I would hypothesize that this differenceis due to societal influences. Seeing the gap first hand in my classroom, I have very consciously compiled several strategies to address the gender gap (as well as other gaps). I do not have the time to list and explain them all, as I would like. But, I will explain at least one. The strategies are not always complex, and sometimes the simplest are the most effective. I have noticed that in questioning, fewer girls raise their hands to participate than boys. Since active participation is essential, I very consciously track how often I call on students of each gender. This means that if there are six boys that have their hands raised and only two girls, if I have already called on three boys in a row, I will call on three girls in a row, even if they do not have their hands raised. Sometimes I even write it down, to make sure that I am giving both girls and boys fair representation.

As an early childhood educator, I have seen no difference due to gender in math and science learning ability of pre-k through first grade students. Keeping all students actively involved is the key.

I agree with Nicole that the gap is not due to girls being genetically unable to do math and science. However, recent brain research seems to indicate that genetic differences in development may be putting girls at risk. These differences combined with societal influence and bias may be the reason that we still see the gender gap. While I am not generally for segregating girls and boys in schools, it would be interesting to see the results of teaching math at an early age (elementary) to single gender classes. I once saw an all girls high school chemistry class and there was clearly a more relaxed and confident attitude among the girls. However, since it was only one class, it was hard to tell if that was a result of the specific teacher or the single gender class.

For the past 2 years I have taught a robotics units using simple machines concepts, programming and Lego construction using a problem-based methodology. I have enough kits to create groups of 2 or 3.

When I first taught this unit, I used boy/girl groups and I had to "drag my girls" into engaging in the activity. Girls that were normally very active in class discussions and projects, literally sat there and let the boys do everything. Some of this, I believe, was because many girls have never had experience with Legos. Whatever the reason, I was appalled. No matter how many times I re-directed the activity, most groups were boy dominated and the girls just watched.

Well, I wasn't going to let that happen with the next rotation of robotics. I made the groups single gender and held everything else constant. To my great relief and joy, the girls became very high performaning groups (the boys stayed the same) and in many cases they out performed the boys. Once they had enough experience with Legos in the beginning exercises, they zoomed forward at completing the self-paced tasks of the unit. Groups still interacted with each other to compare how problems were solved, so there was still boy/girl conversations.

My girl only groups were better problem solvers and stuck to the tasks. All the while my boy groups, experimented and "played" with exotic solutions. In the end, I felt like both sets of students had greatly benefitted from being separated. I continued this with my current year's students in 6th, 7th and 8th grade which continues to work very well....if there are mixed groups that really want to work together, students can ask for that grouping.

This was a great learning experience for me. I would not have believed it if it hadn't seen it with my own eyes. I am still amazed and glad that I had the grouping flexibility to do what it took to keep my girls/boys challenged, feeling supported and stretching their learning.

I think that the gender gap is due to expectations established early on in formal learning situations --schooling. If educators could work towards fostering self-efficacy beliefs then perhaps the gender gap in math and science could be reduced. The change needs to occur in our attitudes--attitudes are formed by beliefs, beliefs by values, and values are the result of experiences and social norms While we often assert that bias and stereotypes have been eliminated as a result of gender awareness there is still a hidden bias that exists. At the very least, an understanding of these influences could bring about an awareness of what we really do believe about learning and gender differences.

I'm a science teacher at at an independent coed day school with 30 years experience at the high-school level. Research shows that girls do better in science at single sex schools. Since my school is coed, this can put the girls at a disadvantage.
Whether the difference is genetic or imposed by our culture, my observations are that boys and girls do labs differently. Boys need more "play time." They "play" with the equipment until the last five minutes of class, and then try to get their data. The girls get right to work, usually with a more thorough preparation ahead of time.
When the girls have to work with the boys they get frustrated with the "fooling around." They end up stepping back until the boys are done "playing." For the boys, the "playtime" is important to their learning style.
Single sex lab groups benefit both sexes. Whenever possible, I use single sex lab groups/partners. When I am accused of being a chauvinist, I explain my reasoning. The students are usually appreciative of this tactic.

I have had the opportunity to study in different parts of the world, and have found that the expectations that adults in the community have of students influence students'attitudes about their abilities, as well as their performance. As a young child, I felt I was not very good in mathematics and avoided it like the plague. It was not until I was doing my Masters degree that my statistics professor refused to let me get by and insisted on giving me the tutoring I needed. I soon realized I was actually very good in mathematical thinking. In fact I had the second highest grade in that graduate level statistics class. The good that came out of all this is that I developed a strong sense of how children learn math and what it takes to engage them. I gained a reputation as an extraordinarily good math teacher, and to this day, I still say there is not a child at the K-6 level that I can't teach math to. I believe girls tend not to do as well in math and science because of cultural norms and the way their teachers and they have been been socialized.

I am 31 and a woman. Throughout grammar school math was my favorite subject. I was even given awards for my math abilities. My highest level high school math teacher was a woman. Then it all came to a crashing halt. 1) a male guidance counselor that downplayed the importance of math to my future. 2)I studied abroad my senior year of high school and therefore had a one year hiatus from the subject. The following year when I attended college, I was already behind and couldn't afford to take the extra courses necessary to return to the sciences and mathematics. This is one individual's experience, of course, but it highlights for me the importance of consistency. Consistent reinforcement (by ALL school staff) to assist girls in counteracting societal pressures that I feel still do exist. Also, continous programs that prepare all students appropriately for college work. I appreciate all the wonderful math instruction going on in this country. Affectively, however, math teachers have work to do: educating staff and parents who may be modeling opposite values just outside the classroom door.

I believe that math and sciences are gender nuetral. How can anyone assume that all girls are inferior to boys in any academic area? Some of my brightest students break all stereotypical molds. Again and again I hear from many of the "college academia" that ther are indications of trends and assumptions based on race and gender. Be careful...it can be a taken at as fact.

The role that gender plays in achievement is so emotionally charged that, I believe, it's best left to people with hard data who use scientific methods to sort out. We do know that students will benefit from more engaging lessons. We also know, although it is politically unpopular to point this out, that sex-segregation helps all students, although especially boys, whom, we also know, are not doing as well in schools as girls. (Look at trends in college admittance in any Western country before disagreeing with that statement.) As far as I'm concerned, we should focus on improving our teaching, and using what research has clearly shown works in doing so, rather than on politically-charged issues that, even when settled, will require a public response, from which we'll have to work.

I believe that a lot of the hesitation in girls' decisions to enroll in advanced science and math courses rests in their different attitudes about grades. While boys are more laid back and less uptight about grades, girls feel that if they cannot get 95% or better in a course, they must not be very good at it. In my career, I can't tell you how many times I had to reassure bright girls that it is OK to fail a quiz or get 75% on a test, as long as you followed up by learning the material. Boys don't seem to worry about this.

If I see any gender bias in science courses it is that the females outnumber and do better than most males! In my courses (AP Biology, Zoology, Biology)there are always a greater number of females than males and, in general, the females tend to do better. I simply do not see the "gender gap" as it is traditionally discussed. Maybe the "gender gap" is found more often in more math oriented courses such as chemistry and physics, but not according to the teachers at my school.

I have looked at research-based evidence that provides adequate and substantial backing to the gender gap in academic success or lack of between boys and girls. Largely due in part to the function of the brain and the obvious differences in maturity levels between some girls and boys of the same age levels. Without a doubt there is a link to self-discipline that factors into that brain function and maturity level, especially at the middle school level. I agree that brain function can be the deciding factor in whether or not boys and girls are more or less successful in Math and or Science; I am not convinced that it is genetically linked. Though genetics plays an important role in individual growth and maturity, in and of itself does not determine motivation levels in either gender. Brain-based research (for example, Michael Gurian's book, "Boys and Girls Learn Differently", shows us that while girls tend to process and emulate on an emotional and tactile level, boys on the other hand are more kinesthetic. Both male and female students need to be motivated by what makes them tick as individuals based on gender. That is contrary to many classrooms as direct instruction is the method that most teachers are taught to teach with and fall into that role more often than not, "just to get through the curriculum material". As we learn more about these differences between the genders and how to motivate them differently, we as teachers must begin a consorted effort to move to more of a constructivist model in the classrooms so as to address the learning styles of all our students regardless of gender, and therefore draw in those "unmotivated", as we see them, students regardless of gender, thus closing the "gender-gap".

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Recent Comments

  • Allison Karabatsos/Science: I have looked at research-based evidence that provides adequate and read more
  • Scott Doty Science Teacher: If I see any gender bias in science courses it read more
  • Janet Zehr, retired science teacher: I believe that a lot of the hesitation in girls' read more
  • Neil Abrahams Substitute Teacher: The role that gender plays in achievement is so emotionally read more
  • Edwin Anderson: I believe that math and sciences are gender nuetral. How read more




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