The Math/Science Gender Gap
It is an unfortunate reality that, even in this time of increased awareness of gender and gender issues, some forms of gender inequality still linger on like an insidious infection within the body of our culture. One such issue that persists in the face of active attempts to bring equality to the sexes is the math/science gender gap. Reinforced by stereotypes of what men and women are supposed to be good at, the math/science gender gap sets up many students to fail before they even get a chance to try their hand in a given field. But is this gap in achievement a real aspect of our biology, or is it in fact merely a social construction which we can overcome and eradicate in order to more equalize the sexes? What can we do about the gap which will truly make a difference and provide a better world for men and women in the future that is to come?
When we look at academic achievement compared across the sexes, there is no doubt that, In math and science, scores tend to favor men. Even on standardized tests, males consistently outperform females in both math and science. This “gap” between males and females is an aspect within the education system which has become so noticeable as to be coined “the gender gap” and it poses serious problems when it comes to eventual outcomes of the percentage of men versus the percentage of women who ultimately end up in science or math heavy careers. Falling into this domain is another aspect of science that has become so widespread that it is almost taken for granted as wholly separate– the use of technology. Statistically, men outnumber women when it comes to IT majors at university level– a trend which continues even on into the information age, where internet access is quickly becoming a must for every student in the nation. To say that having women falling behind in a trend like the growing dependence on technology which is quickly defining and redefining both our society and ourselves is devastating to the sex as a whole would be an understatement.
Reinforced by the stigma of these lower scores and toys like Mattel’s talking Barbie which, in 1992, said “Math Class is tough”, the societal conditioning which females receive on a daily basis while growing up discourages them from getting involved in math and the sciences in a way that males never experience. In the media, scientists, doctors and people of math and science are overwhelmingly portrayed as male while women are more often than not portrayed in domestic roles that devalue their mental faculties and intellectual prowess. This crippling stereotype may not have originally “caused” the gender gap, but it is defined by and unquestionably reinforces it. Even when students are consulted, statistics show that Males are more likely than females to state that they like mathematics, they are good at mathematics, and they understand mathematics most of the time. This is a dangerous stereotype to have and take for granted, especially for those still in school. It may be true that, for the time being, in the various science content areas, U.S. boys significantly outperform U.S. girls just as they do in math, but the fact that there is no evidence to support a biological cause for this gap indicates that the problem can be overcome by educating society about it and overcoming a media which pounds the public with stories about gender differences.
In the science overall score, the United States is one of 10 countries in which a gender gap exists. As a world superpower and a nation that stands as a model for many countries attempting to “westernize” themselves, I think that it is our duty to set as good of an example as we can. The gender gap in math and science is an aspect that flies in the face of the kind of equality and democracy we claim to hold so dear, and with no evidence behind the assertion that the math/science gender gap might be biological, we’re presented with the difficult question of how to solve a problem that has become so thoroughly ingrained in society as to become a stereotype. How do we solve such a widespread social problem? How do we “wake people up” and change a strong, mainstream assumption that women aren’t as good as males when it comes to math and science? First, we must look at the messages our media is sending to not just children, but also parents and teachers. We must be especially sensitive to where these kinds of messages might present themselves in curricula and in the unintentional biases of instructors toward their students. We must remind both parents and children, through media, curricula and other repetitive influences on their lives, that both men and women can be equally good at both math and science. We must encourage game developers, toy manufacturers, writers and media agencies to portray more equality in their products, and we must specifically request curricula that put women on an equal footing with men, instead of elsewhere or as a footnote to the success of some “great man.” We might also consider taking the word of female students themselves who, as reported in studies referenced by William M. Reynolds in 2003 actually stated that their ability to learn math and view themselves as mathematicians was enhanced by a girls-only setting and reconsider offering single-sex courses as a means of improving learning opportunities for students.
Though the gender gap in math and science has begun to narrow since it was first recorded and put forth as a problem within the system, the fact that it is still present means we as a people still have some work to do in terms of bringing equality to education. Working within the framework of society, its expectations, its generalizations and its assumptions, we can tackle this problem by zeroing in on the source of messages that reinforce damaging stereotypes and changing them or removing them from the media altogether. Stereotypes take time to work through and overturn, but, as with any other societal problem, they can eventually be overcome. We as students, educators and parents must do the work, must pull together and change the way the world exerts itself upon us, our students and our children if we are ever going to close the gender gaps and experience a state of true equality within the education system.