Considerable attention has been paid to how boys’ educational achievements in science and math compare to girls’ accomplishments in those areas, often leading to the assumption that boys outperform girls in these areas. This has only reinforced persistent gender inequities in math- and science-related career fields, in which women are vastly underrepresented.
Now, using international data, researchers at the University of Missouri and the University of Glasgow in Scotland have determined that girls outperform boys in educational achievement in 70 percent of the countries they studied — regardless of the level of gender, political, economic or social equality. The findings are published in the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence.
“We studied the educational achievement levels of 1.5 million 15-year-olds from around the world using data collected between 2000 and 2010,” said study co-author Dr. David Geary, Professor of Psychological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science at MU. “Even in countries where women’s liberties are severely restricted, we found that girls are outperforming boys in reading, mathematics, and science literacy by age 15, regardless of political, economic, social or gender equality issues and policies found in those countries.”
According to the data, boys fall behind girls in overall achievement across reading, mathematics, and science in 70 percent of the countries studied. Boys outperform girls in only three countries or regions: Colombia, Costa Rica and the Indian state, Himachal Pradesh. Boys and girls had similar educational achievements in the United States and United Kingdom.
In countries known for relatively low gender equality ratings, such as Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, the educational achievement gap is relatively large and favors girls.
The one exception worldwide is among students in economically developed nations where high achieving boys outperform high achieving girls, researchers said. “With the exception of high-achievers, boys have poorer educational outcomes than girls around the world, independent of social equality indicators,” said lead author Dr. Gijsbert Stoet, of the University of Glasgow.
While this study shows that women are just as competent in math and science as men, persistent stereotypes nevertheless continue to drive women away from these fields.
Past research has shown that gender stereotypes about math ability develop as early as second grade, with both boys and girls identifying with the belief that ‘math is for boys’. Teachers also play a role in reinforcing these stereotypes in the classroom, often by using gendered language and other (usually unintentional) divisive characterizations of boys and girls. As a result, far fewer women pursue science- and math-related careers.
While many people attribute the gender gap in these career fields to differences in interests and skills, the evidence indicates that women are turned off by many math and science jobs because they are the target of unfavorable biases and sometimes discrimination. Furthermore, gender stereotypes often result in female scientists being offered fewer promotions and advancements than their equally-qualified male colleagues.
The good news is that research indicates these gender disparities can be reduced through mentoring programs and other types of social support to help women pursuing careers in these fields.