Perspectives: The Gender Gap in Math and Science

During the past 5000 years mankind's scientific discoveries have ushered us into various ages of technological advancement. But, how many of us actually think of women playing a major role in these developments? Yes, we've all heard of Marie Curie's exploits with radioactivity (1890) and Rosalind Franklin's indispensable x-ray crystallography work toward the discovery of the DNA double-helix (1953), but how many of us know that Nettie Maria Stevens (1905) demonstrated that the X and Y chromosomes were responsible for determining the sex of an individual?

Or, that Lise Meitner (1934) was the first to describe how outer-shell electrons were ejected after gamma ray bombardment of an atom. Or, that Annie Jump Cannon perfected the stellar classification system and catalogued a quarter of a million stars in The Draper Catalog. This was the largest accumulation of astronomical information ever assembled by an individual and was published in nine volumes from 1918 through 1924. (More information on these and other great women trailblazers may be found at the National Women's Hall of Fame).

My point is that we shouldn't always think of men as being the "movers and shakers" in math and science. Although women have always contributed to our scientific progress, their numbers remain small and largely relegated to second-class status. Why? To find an answer we may have to start at the elementary school level. Somehow little girls are getting the notion that math and science are courses that boys excel in. Is there a thread of truth to this myth? The purpose of this article is to examine the facts about the achievement gap between girls and boys with respect to math and science.

The Controversy Begins

In 1972 J. C. Stanley began the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) to examine the mathematical aptitude of approximately 10,000 intellectually gifted junior high school students. Seventh- and eighth-graders took part in the study by taking the College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in mathematics (SAT-M) and verbal skills (SAT-V). Because the SAT-M was designed to test mathematical reasoning ability, researchers hoped these scores would accurately reflect differences if they existed.

C. P. Benbow and J. C. Stanley published their findings in Science magazine in 1980 and found that girls and boys performed about the same on SAT-V, but boys excelled in mathematical reasoning. Girls did better than boys in computation, but overall, boys outnumbered girls 2 to 1 in SAT-M scores over 500. The authors could not explain the gap but offered "societal/environmental influences" as a factor.

If we jump ahead to 2002, a study at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, seems to refute these data. Dr. Guang Guo, associate professor of sociology and fellow at the Carolina Population Center, and Erin Leahey, doctoral candidate in sociology at UNC, studied the SAT scores of junior high and high school students. They found that girls had higher average math scores until age 11 and higher mathematical reasoning scores between 11 and 13. Although boys exhibited an acceleration of math skills as they aged, the largest gender difference occurred late in high school and only amounted to 1.5%.

So, what can we say about these seemingly contradictory pieces of information? Maybe the SMPY study shook up the education world so much that a serious effort was made to increase SAT-M scores for girls. Or, maybe the media doesn't want to report that girls do just as well or better than boys in math. University of Michigan professors Pamela Davis-Kean and Jacquelynne Eccles, along with Miriam Linver of Columbia University, made that claim at the 2002 Society for Research on Adolescence. They followed 1700 students from seventh grade and beyond and found that girls outperformed boys in grade-school math and reading, but didn't necessarily do well on standardized tests. Something must have happened because an August 2003 CNN article reported an increase in SAT-M scores for American boys and girls over the past 10 years. The average score for boys increased by 13 points to 537, while the average for girls rose 19 points to 503.

International Data

International statistics on seventh- and eighth-graders are just as variable as the U.S. data. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicated that girls from industrialized countries have better grades in math and science and tended to take more academically challenging courses than boys. But, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1995 found no differences between seventh- and eighth-grade boys and girls in mathematics, but observed boys performing better than girls in science on a regular basis.

Girl Power

Although girls still lag a little behind, the stage is set for more increases in the future. How can we further improve the situation for girls? Some school principals believe that same-sex classrooms or schools will provide the answer. They claim that when girls are free from interpersonal pressures brought on by boys in the classroom, they are able to concentrate on math and science and as a result rival their male counterparts in these subjects. The state of Michigan even considered allowing all-girl schools for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.

However, a recent CBS News report indicated that all of the special attention that girls have been getting has paid off to the detriment of boys. At present, girls are academically dominating elementary school, junior high and high school, college, and beyond with more boys found in the bottom of academic ranks. Today's college campuses are 60% women, and they earn 170,000 more B.S. degrees than men each year.

The Nation's Report Card

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been assessing American students in a variety of subject areas since 1969. NAEP operates under the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the U.S. Department of Education and provides subject-matter achievement and instructional experiences of American student population subgroups. Check out the NCES site to find out more about gender differences in math and science.

Final Thoughts

Due to conflicting data, we may not be able to really say that boys or girls have an advantage in math and science; therefore, we have a responsibility to address the bigger picture--producing brilliant mathematicians and scientists regardless of gender. We must encourage both boys and girls to consider entering these fields professionally. What age should we begin indoctrinating our students? I'm not entirely sure, but I would say, "the earlier the better." If institutions such as the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, and after-school programs placed more emphasis on the fun and importance of math and science, we as a society would begin to change the stereotype that these subjects are only for "geeks." Most importantly, we must urge our legislators to pass bills that will pump more money into our educational system. These funds would not only train desperately needed teachers but provide educators with the impetus to develop innovative learning strategies for our children in math and science.

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at

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