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Study Probes Gender, Ethnic Variances in Math, Science
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Young Asian-American female student
A new study reveals that girls and boys earn similar grades in math and science classes, bolstering the belief that the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics reflects factors other than differences in basic ability or aptitude. The study also shows that Asian-American students outperform their peers in both math and science. Associated Press

Even though U.S. women hold far fewer STEM jobs than do men, a new study suggests that girls and boys earn similar grades in math and science and that Asian-Americans outperform their peers.

April 23, 2013—It’s a stereotype that has persisted for generations: girls and women do not perform as well in math and science as do boys and men, and because of this fewer women pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. But a new study indicates that girls and boys actually earn similar marks in math and science classes, bolstering the belief that the underrepresentation of women in STEM reflects factors other than differences in basic ability or aptitude. The study also shows that Asian-American students outperform their peers in both math and science.

The report, Math and Science Attitudes and Achievement at the Intersection of Gender and Ethnicity, examines gender and ethnic differences in math and science achievement. Published online on March 29 by the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, the report describes itself as “the first study to examine math and science attitudes and achievement at the intersection of gender and ethnicity across four major groups.” Those groups are white, Latino/Latina, African-American, and Asian-American. The National Science Foundation funded the study.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women account for half of the nation’s college-educated workforce but still occupy less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. Moreover, minority women hold just 8 percent of such jobs. To better understand these phenomena, the researchers analyzed both gender and ethnic differences in math and science perceptions and performance. “There are two rather separate lines of research: one focused on gender and STEM, and another focused on the ethnic minority achievement gap,” said Nicole Else-Quest, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the principal researcher in the study, in written responses to Civil Engineering online. “Instead of focusing only on gender or only on ethnicity, we combined them and examined how gender gaps in STEM attitudes and achievement might vary across ethnic groups.”

The researchers assessed the views of math and science and performance in these subjects among 367 high school sophomores in Philadelphia who classified themselves as white, African-American, Latino/Latina, or Asian-American. As a result, the researchers discovered that while girls and boys in all ethnic groups generally earn similar end-of-year grades in math and science, girls report more negative expectations for success than do boys in these subject areas, math in particular. Girls in all ethnic groups tend to have lower confidence and more anxiety when it comes to tackling such topics, despite the fact that they perform as well as boys in those areas. “Our data indicate that male adolescents continue to report higher confidence and greater expectations for success in math and science than female adolescents do,” the researchers wrote. “Attitudes about math and science may be critical to women’s underrepresentation in STEM careers.”

Given that adolescent girls harbor more doubt about their aptitude for math and science than do boys, the researchers wrote that they were surprised to find that girls value science more than do their male counterparts. The problem is not that girls are unimpressed by STEM; it’s that they think they can’t succeed in STEM, so they steer clear of those careers, Else-Quest said. “This has to change; girls need to know that careers in STEM fields are totally appropriate and potentially fulfilling for them and that they have the aptitude for STEM, no matter what the stereotypes say,” Else-Quest said. According to the Department of Commerce, women in STEM careers earn 33 percent more than do women in non-STEM fields and experience a smaller gender-based wage gap than do those with non-STEM jobs. (See “STEM Education Pays Dividends” on Civil Engineering online.) “One of the best things we can do is make it clear to children, parents, and teachers that anyone, regardless of gender and ethnicity, can do STEM,” Else-Quest asserted.

The researchers also found that, even after controlling for socioeconomic differences, Asian-American students demonstrate the highest achievement in math and science, while Latino and African-American boys demonstrate the lowest. Although it is not clear exactly why Asian-American students outperform others, one factor may be parental attitudes toward education. “Asian-Americans are an incredibly diverse group of people, so I think it’s important to be cautious about making generalizations as to why they tend to outperform their peers,” Else-Quest said. But, she explained, “the messages parents convey to their kids about the value and importance of learning and persisting in STEM are critical in shaping kids’ attitudes about STEM. Moreover, some evidence suggests that these messages differ in Asian-American families compared to other families.” Else-Quest also said that her team is planning to extend its research, delving into how the beliefs of parents affect students’ attitudes toward STEM and their performance in these subjects.

The researchers hope their study will help to reshape the discussion about why so few women pursue careers in STEM. “These findings should be used to inform programs designed to improve the educational outcomes among women and ethnic minorities,” they wrote.


 

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