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Lack of confidence leads talented female students to give up STEM

New research is shedding light on why women are so underrepresented in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) field.

A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology has found that when it comes to mathematics, girls rate their abilities lower than boys, even when they are at the same level.

Researchers followed Year 10 students of both genders for six years, surveying their feelings regarding their math and science skills.

They found that boys were typically more confident, rating their abilities up to 27 percent higher than their female peers, even when there were no observable differences between them.

Lara Perez-Felkner, the lead author of the study, said:

That’s important because those confidence levels influence the math and science courses students choose later in high school… It influences whether they choose colleges that are strong in certain science majors. It also influences the majors they intend to pursue and the majors they actually declare and continue on with in degrees and potential careers.

According to Pew Research, women have surpassed men for U.S college enrollments since the mid-1990s. Yet at present, statistics show that women just make up just 29 percent of the STEM workforce.

So more women are studying than ever, but STEM numbers are still low.

Perez-Felkner and her colleagues at Florida State University argue that gender differences in confidence in math and science ability are the main reason for this discrepancy.

In addition to losing a pool of potentially talented female scientists, there may also be other long-term consequences. For example, STEM jobs are typically higher paid, thus further exacerbating the gender pay gap.

The authors also note that from a young age society encourages boys to pursue challenge and girls to pursue perfection. This results in boys becoming accustomed to the risk of failure and girls judging themselves more harshly.

This is not the first study to explore how gender influences girls’ perception of their abilities.Earlier this year, a study published in Science found that gendered notions of intelligence began earlier than previously thought. In that study, it was found that by the age of 6, girls start to see boys as smarter than them.

Researchers are still looking into the causes of these issues and it looks like sociological rather than biological factors are to blame.

Biologically speaking, men and women have roughly the same size brain with the same amount of brain cells.However, sociologically speaking, men and women are told very different things.

Take, for example, fashion. In 2011, Forever 21 drew criticism for releasing a women’s shirt that read “Allergic to Algebra” on the front. According to ABC News, this was just one of several women’s shirts that was found to portray education negatively.

Another example is children’s toys. Even in 2017, we are still more likely to give boys toy trucks and construction sets and girls things like dolls and baking sets. And in a 1999 study, it was found that gender-linked toys prime children to fall into traditional gender roles.

Finally, there is the role of parents. Research shows that parents’ internalization of stereotypes regarding math and gender shape their expectations for boys and girls, thus affecting their children’s achievements.

Having more women in STEM fields could greatly benefit scientific developments and lessen the gender pay gap. However, the issue is complex and we lack a straightforward answer.

Studies such as the one carried out by Perez-Felkner and her colleagues point the way forward and I for one am optimistic. Looking at my own family, if women aren’t good at science, no one has told my niece about it. She is at the very top of her class in the subject and kicks butt on a daily basis.

And although Aussie science legend Dr Karl often says that anecdotes aren’t scientifically relevant, I think he’d agree that we should believe in this one.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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Comments (1)

    Terry Lyons

    Tuesday 11 April 2017

    Thanks for an interesting article Stefan. The sex differences in beliefs about mathematics self-efficacy you report are consistent with what we have seen in science classrooms in Australia. A paper I published back in 2007 at the World Conference on Science Education (http://www.icaseonline.net/icase2007.pdf) reported that 15 year-old girls tended to rate their abilities in science significantly lower than did boys who had achieved similar grades. I found that many girls even rated their abilities below those of boys who had achieved lower grades! There is no fixed reference point in self-efficacy though, so it could well be that boys over-estimate their abilities. Nevertheless I would agree with you that self-belief and self-efficacy are among the most important factors contributing to the gender disparities we see in many STEM careers.