August 26, 2014 in Opinion

Editorial: Math bias just doesn’t add up for boys, girls

 

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

Let’s start with a simple truism: Women can perform mathematical and scientific calculations as readily as men. So why do so few of them have jobs in science and technology fields?

The answer is simple, but the solution may not be. Men and women have fallen prey to the perception that this truism is false.

And so a mere 14 percent of engineers and 26 percent of computer scientists are women. This is bad news not only for women, but for everyone, because jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math – known as STEM – are expected to grow at a much higher clip than other fields for the foreseeable future.

About 57 percent of all college enrollees are women, but relatively few of them are choosing STEM majors. Hence, the “skills gap” between the positions that employers have available and the pool of applicants. This perception that science is men’s work also partially explains the wage gap, wherein men make more money than women. That’s because STEM jobs pay relatively high wages.

All else being equal, testing shows that girls are as adept as boys at math. Fifth- and sixth-grade “Math Is Cool” teams are liberally populated with girls who hold their own at competitions. Then something happens, as an unconscious bias seeps into the thinking of students and educators alike, and teenage girls begin shying away from advanced courses in math and science.

It’s bad enough that male students, educators and employers subscribe to this myth, but research shows that many of their female counterparts also believe that girls are biologically inferior at math. A study published last spring at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that when those tasked with hiring in math-related fields are given objective data on applicants indicating only gender, they tend to favor men over women. When only shown photos of applicants, the men are twice as likely to be chosen. It didn’t matter if the decision makers were men or women.

Also, male applicants were more likely to exaggerate about their math skills, while women undersold their abilities.

A 2010 study by the American Association of University Women showed that many teenage girls have made up their minds that it wouldn’t be appropriate to pursue a STEM career. That decision is derived from the signals they’ve received from school, friends, family and the media.

Much of this bias operates on an unconscious level, so the solution isn’t as simple as pointing it out. Girls need to see more female instructors in STEM courses. Employers, if they truly want to narrow the skills gap, need to depend on measurable data in hiring. When more women are hired, they will become role models for the next generation.

School districts are working on breaking down these unintentional barriers. Organizations like the Girl Scouts are teaching that it’s desirable to excel at math and science.

The truth is gaining ground, but this confidence boost must be sustained over many years. Encouraging girls to pursue math-related careers adds up. So help spread the news.


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