Why Men are Better than Women at Math... and what we can do about it.

Boy and Girl doing mathIn the 2012 PISA results released Dec. 3, boys outperformed girls in math in 37 out of the 65 countries and economies that participated – girls outperformed boys in only five. According to the OECD, this “poses a serious challenge to achieving gender parity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations in the future”. Indeed, it’s common knowledge that men outnumber women in STEM fields by as many as three to one. We’ve all heard this before… but what does it imply?

There are the usual reasons for this imbalance. As women, we take maternity leave and – though it shouldn’t – it definitely sets us back professionally. And then comes childcare. We can sacrifice the best parenting years of our lives letting others take care of our kids while we pursue our careers, or we can put our careers on hold while we care for and bond with our children. It’s a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation if you ask me.

Though both of these reasons are plausible and likely contribute to our conspicuous absence in the STEM fields, a new study by Katie Van Loo and Robert Rydell of  the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, showed evidence that a stereotype is actually holding us back.

It seems the real reason women are underrepresented in the STEM fields is rooted much earlier in life – much earlier in history, in fact.

Perpetrated by our collective psyche, this stereotype tells us that men are better than women at math.

The Indiana University researchers had groups of women and men watch a video of study groups prior to answering math problems. One video showed a male leading the study group and behaving dominantly toward women, another showed a dominant woman leading the study group and one video showed a neutral group with no gender dominating the other.

The results were… disheartening. The women who watched the video of the dominant male showed significant decreases in their usual ability to answer the high-level math problems as well as their confidence in their own abilities. The women who watch the female dominated and neutral videos showed no decrease in their abilities or confidence.  And here’s the real kicker – the men who watched the videos showed no decrease in their performance or confidence – not even the men that watched the female-dominated study group video.

What is it about women that makes us lose our hard-earned knowledge at the sight of a dominant male? Why aren’t we pursuing the STEM subjects we showed so much promise in as young girls? According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology in the U.S.A. (NCWIT), many analysts say the problem starts in childhood, when teachers and parents do not encourage girls to pursue engineering (and other STEM subjects).

From our earliest classroom experiences girls, however unintentionally, are steered towards arts, literature and (dare I say) care taking, while boys are encouraged to pursue engineering and math. Though in the younger grades, girls often excel beyond the boys in STEM subjects, it’s not long before they start dumbing themselves down to fit into the stereotype that permeates the society around them.

So, what can we do to change this seemingly unavoidable path for girls? According to the researchers at Indiana University, "encouraging equality between men and women in math settings should protect other women from stereotype threat."

In the U.S.A, NCWIT, a non-profit community of more than 450 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-profits working to increase women's participation in technology and computing, has made leaps and bounds in empowering girls with outreach programs such as AspireIT, which runs computing-related after-school programs, summer camps, clubs and weekend programs for middle school girls, and Counselors for Computing (C4C) which provides school counselors with up-to-date information and resources they can use to guide students toward education and careers in computing.

A Canadian company that’s empowering girls, specifically in mathematics, is Spirit of Math Schools (SMS), an after-school math program for kids who excel at math. Their CEO, Kim Langen is proof positive that women can excel in math. She’s been growing this company with the help of many mathematically inclined women and men for over 25 years and of 4251 current SMS students over 40% are girls – that’s more than 1700 girls studying advanced math and covering topics that are well above what kids are expected to learn in regular school. Yet there’s no sign here of girls “dumbing themselves down” to fit in. At SMS, kids need to perform to the best of their abilities to fit in… and then challenge themselves to do even better.

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