We all know the stereotypes, right? Boys are just better than girls at math and science. But can that possibly be true?
Over recent decades and across the globe women have surpassed men in college enrollment and degree attainment yet women remain underrepresented in physical, engineering, mathematics and computer sciences (PEMC). In fact, women are projected to comprise nearly 60 percent of university students by 2025 but earn a clear minority of PEMC undergraduate degrees.
Well, Florida State University researchers did a deep dive to find real reasons to why fewer girls pursue careers in STEM than boys. And what they discovered is a very sad reality. According to their findings, girls’ poor confidence levels hold them back from climbing up the math and science career ladder. And not their actual ability to perform.
Researchers followed 10th grade students over a six-year period, including for two years after they graduated high school. The students were surveyed on how strongly they felt they were able to perform in math in their 10th and 12th grade years.
The students didn’t solve actual math or science problems in the study. And researchers didn’t take into account classroom performance.
But the results showed performance might not be the point.
A series of questions in the 10th and 12th grade surveys asked students to indicate their level of agreement with statements such as "I'm certain I can understand the most difficult material presented in math texts."
Boys in the study were often more confident about their skills than girls. And as a result, they rated their ability to do well in math 27 percent higher than girls did.
As Science Daily reported, Lara Perez-Felkner, assistant professor of higher education and sociology, says self-esteem is the obvious culprit here.
"The argument continues to be made that gender differences in the ‘hard’ sciences is all about ability. But when we hold mathematics ability test scores constant, effectively taking it out of the equation, we see boys still rate their ability higher, and girls rate their ability lower.”
And according to Perez-Felkner, those confidence levels have an impact on the student’s futures. Not just in high school, but the types of colleges they choose to attend too.
“It also influences the majors they intend to pursue,” Perez-Felkner said. “And the majors they actually declare and continue on with in degrees and potential careers.”
The study also found that the student’s 10th grade year seemed to be the most crucial; the results from that year seemed to have a major correlation to whether a student was likely to pursue a math or STEM career.
The authors note boys are encouraged from a young age to pursue challenge -- including the risk of failure -- while girls tend to pursue perfection, judging themselves and being judged by more restrictive standards reinforced by media and society at large.
Other results included:
- Women have a 4.7 percent chance of declaring PEMC majors compared to 14.9 percent of men.
- Girls in the 12th grade with most negative perceptions had a 1.8 percent chance of choosing a PEMC major, while girls with the most positive perceptions about their ability under challenge had a 5.6 percent chance of choosing a PEMC major.
- Boys had a 19.1 percent chance if their perceptions were positive and boys with negative perceptions had 6.7 chance of choosing a PEMC major.
- Boys are more likely than girls to hold a growth mindset, that is, the perception that mathematical ability can be developed through learning rather than being a fixed talent you are born with.
- Tenth grade mathematics ability under challenge was most influential in determining whether students stayed in the natural sciences when pursuing postsecondary education.
- Mathematics ability beliefs in the 12th grade were positively associated with switching into natural science majors, among students not initially intending to pursue them.
So if you’re a girl who thinks you aren’t any good at math, try out a few problems. Your perception could be low self-esteem trying to trick you out of your potential.