Tag Archives: STEM

Undoing gender math stereotypes

In my opinion, there is no way to administer a math test that will identify inborn ability. So people who think the greater presence of men in high-end math and science positions is a result of the distribution of inborn abilities generally rely on the observation of (a) big gender gaps, (b) long-standing gender gaps, or (c) widespread gender gaps, to make their case.

Big gaps (a) are only useful for creating a big impression. Long-standing gaps (b) are undermined by the scale of change in recent decades. And a new study does a very nice job weakening type-C support.

In “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance,” in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Jonathan Kane and Janet Mert study variation both between and within countries to test a variety of hypotheses about the sources male math advantage. They look at the distribution and variance in scores, the association with single-gender schooling, religious context and, most importantly, broader patterns of gender inequality. The main message I get is that gender ability in math differs so much across social contexts that any conclusion about “natural” ability is untenable. Also, gender equality is good.

Here’s my favorite figure from the paper, showing the distribution of eighth-grade scores for boys and girls in three countries:

In the Czech Republic there is no difference in either the means or the distributions for boys versus girls, and the average ability is high. Bahrain shows a much greater variance for boys versus girls — which is sometimes used to explain why to many top achievers are men — but women’s average is higher. Finally, in Tunisia the girls have a higher variance but a lower mean. Where’s the natural ability story?

An important consideration in all of these patterns is the role of selective dropouts. That is a potential problem with any school-based test, but also shows the problem with using any test of school-based knowledge to understand underlying “natural” ability (including SATs). Unless you can test populations with no schooling, or identical schooling experiences, you can’t resolve this.

In the meantime, the great social variability shows us that context matters, and since that’s something we can definitely address, there is no reason to get hung up on the biological stuff — at least as far as policy and practice are concerned.

Here’s a previous post from me on how teacher interactions affect gender patterns of learning, and another writeup on the new study from ScienceBlogs.

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The frailty of gender math and science stereotypes

In our research on gender in the workplace, Matt Huffman, Jessica Pearlman and I have found that the gender gap in pay, and the level of gender segregation, are lower in places with more women in management. We treated this mainly as a question of manager behavior — were women discriminating less? But women might also perform better when their bosses are women. That’s a question that has been raised with regard to role models in math and science, where the small number of female professionals and professors is a big issue.

A new study from psychology tried to see whether interaction with female advanced students and teachers brought benefits to women in college. As is their wont, the psychologists, Jane Stout and colleagues at UMass, described several experiments briefly in one paper.

The gender at the head of the class

First, women in college majoring in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) were asked to complete a questionnaire and math test by a facilitator posing as an advanced graduate student in math. Half met a female facilitator, half met a male facilitator. Would this brief interaction with a role model make a difference? Yes.

[when] women who were pursuing STEM majors interacted with an advanced female peer who had expertise in math, they expressed more positive implicit attitudes toward math, showed more implicit identification with math, and increased their effort on a very difficult math test compared with others who interacted with an advanced male peer.

Later, the researchers (working with their math department) studied 100 STEM-major students randomly assigned to math courses taught by male professors with male teaching assistants, or female professors with female teaching assistants — in each case teaching the same material with the same exams. The professors — who did not know the purpose of the study — were also matched on teaching skills, career stage and English proficiency.

They found that female students with female instructors had more positive feelings toward math, more implicit identification with the subject of math, and higher self-efficacy (they predicted higher grades for themselves). Women also identified much more strongly with the female professors, not surprisingly, and participated more in class by asking and answering questions. However, neither men’s nor women’s final grades were actually affected by the instructors’ gender (that would be too easy).

These kinds of interventions just scratch the surface of what might be different if girls and women had more exposure to and interaction with women teaching and leading in math and science fields.

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