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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Why Some Girls Don't Study Math-Intensive Science

"Though women are the majority in the life sciences and men might need outreach programs to counteract potential bias against them in the social sciences, in math-intensive fields like physics women still lag." according to Scientific Blogging.

From left to right: Lara Perez-Felkner, Samantha Nix, Kirby Thomas. 
Credit: Bill Lax/Florida State University

Sociologists believe that it may be due to misperception; that you either have math ability or you don't. Counter that misperception and you the problem is solved.

Math is a language. While some people have more aptitude for languages, clearly everyone can learn both. Framing math that way, that it is an ability that can be developed, rather than binary, would help women, say Lara Perez-Felkner, Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Sociology at Florida State University and doctoral students Samantha Nix and Kirby Thomas. The team focused on a group of 4,450 students from 750 high schools across the USA, following them over the period 2002-2012 through the records of the Education Longitudinal Study of the US National Center for Education Statistics.

They found that someone's self-perceived ability in mathematics, particular in difficult and challenging tasks, matters. While boys in high school tend to overrate their abilities in mathematics, girls tend to underrate them. But girls in 12th grade who reported being convinced that they could do the most difficult and challenging mathematics were an estimated 3.3 times more likely to take a math-intensive major like physics, engineering, math or computer science, what the group calls PEMC. This held true even after correcting for other factors, for example the science courses they took in high school, ethnicity, college entrance exam scores, and the selectivity of the college.

Another important factor was the perception that mathematical ability can be developed through learning (a "growth mindset"). Girls in 10th grade who reported that they strongly believed this were an estimated 2.3 times more likely to take a PEMC major than girls who reported the opposite belief.

Additional resources 

Nix S, Perez-Felkner L and Thomas K (2015) Perceived mathematical ability under challenge: a longitudinal perspective on sex segregation among STEM degree fields. Front. Psychol. 6:530. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00530
Source: Science 2.0