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Gender Gap in Math Achievement

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While a wide range of sociocultural forces contribute to the gender gap in mathematics, it is interesting to examine the brain composition of both males and females and the effects it has on overall performance. However, experience alters brain structures and functioning (Benbow, Geary, Gernsbacher, Gur, Halpern, & Hyde, 2014), so explanations regarding cognitive ability and its effects on females’ and males’ math ability are circular. Research shows that the gender differences in mathematics and science achievement are smaller for students performing in the middle of the distribution compared to those at the right end with the highest level of achievement (Degol & Wang, 2016). Explanations for this could be due to the differences in cognitive abilities between men and women. Majority of research has investigated cognitive abilities in three categories: verbal, visuospatial, and quantitative abilities. All of these abilities are necessary for learning and success in mathematics.

Successful careers in science and math require a wide collection of cognitive abilities. Studies show that females tend to excel in verbal abilities compared to males. This advantage should be helpful across all academic subjects, including math. However, males outperform females on most measures of visuospatial abilities, which has been identified as a large factor impacting the gender difference on standardized test scores in mathematics. Males are more variable on most measures of quantitative and visuospatial ability, supporting the patterns showing males at both high and low ability extremes (Benbow, Geary, Gernsbacher, Gur, Halpern, & Hyde, 2014).

Recent evidence is leaning towards the notion that gender differences in mathematics and other STEM courses are not reflective of the absolute cognitive ability as described in the previous paragraph, but rather the range of cognitive ability (Valla & Ceci, 2014). Having an increased ability profile is suggested to affect career choices. In some studies, researchers conclude that women are offered a greater variety of career options due to their likeliness to be highly skills in verbal and math domains, whereas boys are more likely to demonstrate higher math relative to verbal ability. Men, often having one dominant cognitive aptitude, are likely to invest time in it and pursue that domain as a future career. Having multiple cognitive strengths, as some cognitive studies suggest women often do, is likely to lead less specific career goals (Degol & Wang, 2016). This could explain why math-talented women choose non-STEM careers as opposed to the math-intensive interests. However, this does not answer the question why women who have all of these options are still choosing to not pursue math-intensive fields. Relative cognitive strengths cannot fully explain this phenomena, hence the research studies into additional motivators such as early experiences, biological factors, educational policy, and more.

Gender Stereotyping and Self Efficacy

The beliefs that individuals have about genders may actually be an influencing factor of the gender gap in mathematics. Many studies have been conducted exploring the relationships between male and female stereotypes and their performances on norm-referenced achievement tests, classroom grades, and curriculum based measurements. The differences on standardized test scores, however, are not universal, although the majority of the data suggest that girls, on average, receive lower scores on standardized mathematics tests but have higher grades in math class (Hulac, Schweinle, & Schwery, 2016). If people are not careful, they might begin making inferences about this data that suggests girls lack the innate capability to become good at math and be successful in high level STEM careers. The stereotype threat can have negative consequences when it comes to a female’s confidence in the mathematics classroom.

According to one study, women who were told prior to taking a mathematics test that the test had previously shown gender differences in the past did significantly worse than women who were not told this prior to test taking (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999). On the other hand, women who were told before taking a test that both men and women performed equally on the test resulted in significantly higher scores. These stereotype threats continue into adulthood and are a contributing factor as to why less women pursue careers in the field of mathematics compared to men.

This stereotyping may result from a reduction in self-efficacy. Academic self-efficacy refers to the beliefs students hold about their own academic capabilities (Usher & Pajares, 2009), and studies find that women often feel a reduction in self-efficacy due to presumptions that their math skills are not as capable as those of their male peers. Research supports that males often feel a higher level of self-efficacy when it comes to mathematics, even if they are performing at the same level as their female colleagues. This lowered self-efficacy in females may be more likely to cause the attribution of unpleasant experiences with mathematics. Even if a female has adequate mathematics skills, a lowered self-efficacy could result in the selection of less challenging math courses and an avoidance of majors that require any mathematics (Hulac, Schweinle, & Schwery, 2016).

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According to a study conducted by Pajares in 1996, when accounting for other variables like cognitive ability and prior achievement, self-efficacy had a direct effect on mathematics performance for students in regular education. It also indicated that amongst these same students, gender had a direct effect of self-efficacy, and self-efficacy was the most predictive variable of mathematics performance. Having a strong sense of self-efficacy also allows students to adopt mastery goal orientations, which ultimately helps contribute to students being less likely to be discouraged when receiving a bad grade or not performing as well as others on tests. Researchers have hypothesized that girls experience lower mathematics self-efficacy than boys due to outside factors such as home life, culture, societal influences and more. These all wind down to the stereotype threat that suggests boys are better at mathematics than girls.

The Role of Competition

Niederle and Vesterlund (2010) argue that the differences in male and female test scores at the right end of the distribution are not due to nature versus nurture, but rather explained by the differences in the ways men and women respond to competitive test-taking environments. Researchers found that the response to competition differs for men and women, and in the examined environment, gender difference in competitive performance does not reflect the difference in noncompetitive performance (Niederle & Vesterlund, 2010). This study can help support the arguments that competitive pressures in test-taking environments such as the American Mathematics Competitions, SATs, and even the PSSAs do not reflect the results gathers from less-competitive environments such as the every day classroom. The differences in response to competition may prevent females from realizing their full potential or may cause society to not recognize their potential in STEM careers.

The effect competition has on math test scores in particular is eye-opening. Traditionally, test scores were thought to measure an individual’s cognitive ability. However, researchers have established that they also measure noncognitive abilities such as motivation, drive, and obedience. These noncognitive abilities can affect the student’s cognitive skills, ultimately affecting their test score performance. One of these noncognitive skills, in particular, that played a role in test scores is an individual’s response to competitive pressure. Studies show that men and women differ in their response to competition when they are performing in environments with both males and females (Niederle & Vesterlund, 2010). For this reason, caution is needed when using test scores to infer gender differences in skill. However, it is unclear for researchers why this competitive environment would have a greater effect on females on math tests rather than on other assessments as well. Part of that may be explained by the differences between a male and female’s confidence and attitude in response to competitive environments.

So why are gender differences in confidence and attitude particularly large in mathematics? Some argue that it is due to the greater fraction of male teachers in math compared to any other subject. Others argue it stems from stereotypes about male and female math performances. This effect is likely to intensify for those females at the tail end of the distribution for whom the gender gap in confidence is profoundly large. Niederle and Vesterlund (2010) conclude that sensitivity to competitive pressure is also likely to influence the investment in and selection into male-dominated or math-intensive fields where there is a strong stereotype threat that females do not perform as well as their male peers. They believe that a vital question to answer is whether or not it is possible to alter how women react to competition. Without the highly competitive environments, would women outperform men at the tail end of the distribution? Their results suggest that it may be important to examine whether changes in testing would allow more females to realize their full potential and pursue their math interests rather than avoid the highly competitive environments.

Impact of the Teacher

A more recent study of the gender gap in mathematics suggests that teachers actually overrate the performance of girls relative to boys, and hold more positive attitudes towards girls’ mathematics abilities. However, Cimpian, Ganley and Lubienski (2013) suggests that these prior assumptions can potentially be misleading because they confound achievement with teachers’ perceptions of behavior and effort. They find evidence that suggests by teachers underrating girls’ mathematics proficiency based on classroom behaviors of both genders, they are contributing to a substantial portion of the development of the gender gap. These gaps in achievement can begin emerging early in a child’s education. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education indicates that although both genders show average achievement in kindergarten, males begin to have an advantage about one quarter of a standard deviation by the spring of third grade (Fryer & Levitt, 2010). Past research shows that a large fraction of the gender gap is due to socially constructed circumstances, with parents and teachers being the socializing agents in the formation of the gap.

Unlike gaps based on race and socioeconomic status, which in part can be explained by which school a student attends, gender gaps in elementary school are unlikely due to males and females being places in different classrooms. One possible origin could be, however, an elementary teacher’s rating of girls’ and boys’ mathematics abilities. Earlier research on teacher interactions with students identified multiple ways in which boys tend to have an advantage over girls. Teachers tended to hold higher expectations for male students compared to their female students (Dweck, Davidson, Nelson, & Enna, 1978). Other studies show that teachers believe that males have a natural gift for math, while their female peers’ success in mathematics is attributed to their work ethic and effort. However, more current research suggests that teachers actually rate the performance of females higher than males even when boys outperform girls on a direct cognitive assessment of mathematics (Fryer & Levitt, 2010).

One potential explanation for why girls might be perceived as more proficient in mathematics by their teachers could be found in the differences in a teacher’s perception of boys’ behaviors and effort and girls’ behaviors and effort. Girls tend to be more task-oriented and focused when in the classroom (Ready, LoGerfo, Burkam, & Lee, 2005), If teachers use positive behavior as an indicator of mathematics proficiency, this may lead to an overrating of female performances in the classroom, but does not adequately prepare them for direct cognitive assessments like the SAT or American Mathematics Competition. Cimpian, Ganley, and Lubienski (2013) conclude that teachers rate mathematics proficiency of girls as equal to boys only if they perceive the girls as working harder and being better behaved than the boys. They found this pattern unique to the mathematics classroom. It was not found in reading or language arts classrooms. This tendency for teachers to underrate girls’ mathematics performance relative to boys who perform and behave similarly appears to have a great impact on the formation of the gender gap in early grades.

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Gender Gap in Math Achievement. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/gender-gap-in-math-achievement/
“Gender Gap in Math Achievement.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/gender-gap-in-math-achievement/
Gender Gap in Math Achievement. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/gender-gap-in-math-achievement/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Gender Gap in Math Achievement [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/gender-gap-in-math-achievement/
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