Gender gap: Why girls don't 'think like a scientist' and boys don't read

Answer: It's not aptitude. A new international study finds that poor performance stems from students' attitudes toward learning, behavior in school, use of leisure time, and confidence in their own abilities.

David McFadden/AP/File
Kayla Lewin answers a question in her all-girls classroom at a co-ed primary school experimenting with single-sex education in Kingston, Jamaica, on Feb. 2, 2015. A new report on international gender gaps finds that self-confidence and aspirations impact student performance.

One solution to the gender gaps that seem to persist in education in most countries: Focus on attitudes and self-confidence that seem to deeply affect how students perform in school.

That’s a finding from a major report on gender equality in education released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Thursday, which dives deeply into test scores from OECD countries and related data to try to understand why, for instance, girls tend to perform more poorly on math than boys and are far less likely to aspire to science- and computer-related careers, even when they perform well, and why boys tend to do worse on literacy and are more likely than girls to be low achievers.

Such gaps may seem persistent in many countries, but they’re not inevitable and don’t exist in all countries. In high-performing East Asian countries and economies like Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, for instance, there is almost no difference between girls’ and boys’ performance in math, and girls there attain higher scores than boys in almost all other countries.

It may be significant that parental aspirations in those countries also don’t vary as much by gender as they do in other countries, says Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD.

“If parents would be more open to girls aspiring to a career in STEM areas maybe we’d see higher levels of aspirations” among girls, says Mr. Schleicher, noting that there is virtually no gender gap when it comes to performance in science, and yet far fewer girls than boys say they expect to have a career in engineering or computing. In the US, about 2.5 percent of girls aspire to such careers compared with 15 percent of boys.

“We can learn something from these East Asian countries that do not see those kind of pronounced gender gaps,” adds Schleicher, noting that in most of them, as in some of the northern European countries like Finland and Iceland, teachers have similar expectations for boys and girls, have little tolerance for failure, and support all students.   

The report used 2012 data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses science, math, and reading literacy for 15-year-olds. The gender gaps it explores – some of which are relatively new – go both ways. Boys, for instance, are more likely than girls to be low achievers, are more likely to leave school early, and have significantly worse scores in reading in every country.

High-performing girls, meanwhile, tend to underperform in science and math relative to high-performing boys, and while there isn’t any gender gap on overall science scores, girls don’t do nearly as well as boys when asked to “think like a scientist” – to apply their knowledge to a given situation or interpret phenomena scientifically.

But some of the most interesting gender differences that the report explores are in boys’ and girls’ attitudes toward education, school, subjects, careers, and their level of self-confidence.

Girls, for instance, report higher anxiety around math and are much less confident than boys – even among high-performing girls – about their ability to solve science or math problems. When controlling for the confidence and anxiety differences, the report found that the 19-point score difference between math scores for high-performing boys and girls disappeared.

Boys, meanwhile, are twice as likely as girls to say that school is a waste of time. They also tend to spend one hour less than girls per week on homework, spend less time reading for pleasure, and more time playing video games – all possible reasons they’re overrepresented among the poor performers.

And interestingly, one of the biggest gender gaps – the 38-point gap, on average, in reading – starts to disappear among young adults between the ages of 16 and 29. While it’s impossible to say why that happens, it’s possible that they develop cognitively more slowly than girls, or that they learn better through reading and writing at work than in a school environment.

“As the evidence in the report makes clear, gender disparities in performance do not stem from innate differences in aptitude, but rather from students’ attitudes towards learning and their behavior in school, from how they choose to spend their leisure time, and from the confidence they have – or do not have – in their own abilities as students,” wrote OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría in a forward to the report.

Helping to shift those attitudes may, in the end, be as important as any public-policy changes, the report suggests – and that efforts to help teachers be aware of gender biases, to help build girls’ self-confidence, to give students more choice in what they read, and to help students look ahead to careers may all help erode the gender gaps that exist.

“You could almost say that reducing gender gaps and capitalizing on the talent of both boys and girls is something everybody could make a difference in,” says Schleicher, citing variables related to teachers, parents, expectations of students, employers, and what students do in their leisure time – all of which seem to help explain the various gaps. “This is everybody’s business."

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