Women holding back in math

By Megan McNamara

Girls tend to earn better grades in math than boys during elementary school, yet women typically do not score higher on standardized testing than men or pursue mathematics degrees, according to a new study in the Developmental Psychology journal.

“Boys pretty consistently outscore girls in math and science,” said Ed Colby, spokesman for ACT. “Essentially, SAT, the National Assessment of Educational Progress and ACT scores all exhibit this pattern.”

The study found that in the classroom, girls showed more concern with learning the material, engaged in better learning strategies, and were more persistent. However, the girls either did worse or as well as boys on standardized math tests, but never better than them.

“All that learning in the classroom should translate into achievement test scores,” Eva Pomerantz, professor of psychology, said. “But girls have the stereotype that, ‘I’m not naturally good at math.'”

Girls’ performance on standardized math tests differ most sharply from boys’ scores as they reach secondary school, Colby said.

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“Essentially, the score gaps (on the math portion of standardized testing) tend not to appear or, if they are present, widen, until students reach the high school level,” he said.

No one is exactly sure how to explain this phenomenon.

“Everything from biological to environmental factors have been studied on this topic, and the results have been inconclusive and sometimes contradictory,” Colby said.

“We need a good, well-designed experiment that gets to the heart of the matter,” mathematics professor Eugene Lerman said.

In higher education, a gap also exists between the numbers of men versus women in math-related fields.

Currently, there are 241 men majoring in math at the University, compared to 178 women, according to the Department of Management Information.

The stereotype of women being poorer in math than men persists to these upper-level courses, Lerman said.

Lerman said one of the best students he had was female, and she thought she was one of the worst. She had been discouraged from going into math.

Though many girls pursue higher education, they may avoid “stereotypically masculine fields, such as science and engineering” because the “more competitive environment of these fields is not a good fit with how girls approach school,” the Developmental Psychology researchers wrote.

“Consequently, even if the topic is of interest,” Pomerantz said, “the girls’ more learning-oriented approach may not match the work environment, where the atmosphere in these fields may provide a better fit to boys’ more competitive approach.”

With so few women in math, it is harder for them to break into the field, Lerman said.

“I’ve never been the only man in a class full of women, but I can imagine that it would be uncomfortable,” he said.

However, once you have a critical number of women in an area of mathematics, the area looks friendlier to women, Lerman said.

The symplectic geometry field at the University experienced an increase in women, and “there have been conferences planned by a majority of women, with 30 to 40 percent of attendees female,” Lerman said.

If the math advisor has a reputation of being supportive, women feel comfortable working with this person, and word spreads, Lerman said.