Friday, July 25, 2008

This just in: there is no gender gap in math among US school students

Update: Here are the press releases from UC-Berkeley and Wisconsin-Madison. Also, check out the Knight Science Journalism Tracker with lots of links to newspaper stories. [Original post follows ...]

First, the big news of the day from the US: A team led by Janet Hyde (psychologist from the University of Wisconsin at Madison) has a paper in Science (likely pay-walled) that examined the latest data on the performance of boys and girls from grades 2 to 11 in standardized math tests.

Their conclusion is summarized in the headline of the accompanying Science news story: Girls = Boys in Math. Here's an excerpt from the paper itself:

Our analysis shows that, for grades 2 to 11, the general population no longer shows a gender difference in math skills, consistent with the gender similarities hypothesis (19). There is evidence of slightly greater male variability in scores, although the causes remain unexplained. Gender differences in math performance, even among high scorers, are insufficient to explain lopsided gender patterns in participation in some STEM fields.

[Here's a recent post by Daisy Grewal on the Gender Similarities Model]

The authors have quite a few other interesting things to say; they are covered in this NYTimes story by Tamar Lewin.

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Over three weeks ago, Slate ran a series of articles by Amanda Schaffer titled The Sex Difference Evangelists: Unpacking the Science of Sex Difference. The entire series is a must read; here's a short extract:

... if history is any guide, today's gender breakdowns are likely to keep changing. What's so magical, after all, about the current numbers? A few decades ago, most biology and math majors were men. So were most doctors. Now math undergraduate majors split close to 50/50. In 1976, only 8 percent of Ph.D.s in biology went to women; by 2004, 44 percent did. Today, half of M.D.s go to women. Even in engineering, physics, chemistry, and math, the number of women receiving doctorates tripled or quadrupled between 1976 and 2001. Why assume that we have just now reached some natural limit?

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On a related note, let me also point you to this article by Mary Hatcher-Skeers on the situation of women in chemistry:

... [W]hen [our women chemistry graduates] go on to graduate school, the reception isn’t always a warm one. Nationally, nearly 50 percent of chemistry undergraduates are women, but it’s nowhere near that percentage when it comes to gender equity in Ph.D. programs or in academic careers. And the reason for the falloff continues to be gender discrimination.

We have had a number of women chemistry majors, from each of our participating colleges (Scripps, Pitzer and Claremont McKenna), go on to graduate school and be quite successful, but they often remark that the transition is difficult. A few years ago, one of my Scripps students enrolled in a Ph.D. program in chemistry but had trouble finding a research lab that would take her. I remember her words when she informed me of her decision to leave with a master’s degree: “You never told me that in science, men assume I’m stupid.”

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Which leads me to FSP's post about "obnoxious questions commonly asked of Female Science Professors" and some of the possible answers to them.