A recent study has confirmed what many educators in Spokane and the nation already knew: the “math gap” between boys and girls has little to do with biology and almost everything to do with societal attitudes.
For that reason, many girls still lack the confidence to pursue higher-level math and science.
“However, we’ve definitely more aware and more conscious about how we react to that,” said Tricia Gessele, mathematics coordinator for kindergarten through sixth grade at Spokane Public Schools.
For example, Gessele said, “We’ve made conscious efforts to reach out to school principals to encourage more female participation in summer STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camps.”
Those efforts are paying off.
Last year, for the first time, girls outnumbered boys district-wide in pre-calculus, which is considered one the gateways to other scientific fields.
The gender math gap has plagued educators for decades, but it was thrown into high relief this month.
A study of 104 children from ages 3 to 10 found similar patterns of brain activity in boys and girls as they engaged in basic math tasks, according to a report in the journal Science of Learning.
“They are indistinguishable,” said Jessica Cantlon, an author of the study and professor of developmental neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University.
The new study was derived from earlier research by Cantlon that found boys and girls as old as 8 had similar abilities when it came to perceiving numbers and grasping elementary mathematics concepts.
That research showed how kids behaved, but not what was going on in their brains, Cantlon says.
For that reason, Cantlon and her team studied children as they performed math tasks while lying in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner that monitored activity throughout the brain.
The children also watched an educational video that included clips from “Sesame Street” and covered math topics such as counting and addition, as well as reading topics for comparison.
“We’re using a kind of statistics that lets us ask, ‘Is this one heterogeneous group where there’s individual variability in math ability … or is this two groups and the variability breaks down on gender lines?’ ” she said. “We are able to show that this is in fact one group. Everybody has similar brain structure, functions, the spatial and temporal patterns are the same. Their behavior is the same.”
That question apparently settled, educators are still grappling with a larger one: Why do women hold only 26% of the jobs in computer and mathematical fields, 21% in computer programming and 16% in architecture and engineering?
Those numbers, supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are more balanced than in the not-too-distant past.
In 1983, boys outnumbered girls 13 to 1 among those earning the top 10,000 scores nationwide in standardized math tests. Now that ratio is down to about 3 to 1.
“I think that when we look back, math would be a gatekeeper to where kids would go,” Gessele said. “But lately the focus is that it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. We’ve done a lot of work here to create a positive mindset around math.”
However, that gap is still substantial, and is reflected in the jobs data.
One factor inhibiting girls is self-confidence, according to University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde.
“Even when girls are getting better grades, boys are more confident in math,” Hyde said.
However, girls appear to have comparable self-confidence in their overall academic potential.
Stephen Ceci, a developmental psychology professor at Cornell University, concluded after decades of research that “Boys who are really good at math say, ‘This is who I am, I’m a mathematician.’ ”
“Girls who are really good at math are more likely to be really good at verbal skills, too, and they ask themselves, ‘I wonder what I want to do?’ ” Ceci said.
In another study, Vanderbilt University psychologist David Lubinsky and his colleagues interviewed what they designated an “intellectually precocious” group of more than 5,000 girls and boys they’d followed from childhood into their mid-30s.
There was no difference in attainment of advanced degrees, the study found.
However, women more than men later switched to humanities and social science majors. Every one of these study participants had the ability to succeed in math-related careers, but many of them were more likely to choose law school or medicine, Lubinsky said:
“The sexes are making different choices. But when we look at how satisfied these people are with their career choices, they’re equally satisfied and equally successful.”
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