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Why Is the Math Gender Gap So Much Worse in the US Than in Other Countries?

In most countries, girls outperform boys in math. However, in the US, boys uniformly best girls. We are joined in the low-performing bottom three by Liechtenstein and Columbia. While we have the greater problem that math and science education in the US seriously lags that of other nations, we must face the fact that that lag is also the product of gender inequities.
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Could it be the boy crisis?

A new international study released last week shows that during the past 100 years, the first in which girls have been educated en masse, girls have out-performed boys academically. I'm not going to write here about what that may mean in terms of what grades are rewarding or about how that fact hasn't led to the dismantling of institutional male dominance. This is just about math and what our persistent gender gap means.

Girls in the United States are among the worst math and science performers in the world. The disparity between boys and girls in terms of math and science here is one of the widest. In most countries, girls outperform boys in math. However, in the United States, boys uniformly best girls. We are joined in the low-performing bottom three by Liechtenstein and Columbia. While we have the greater problem that math and science education in the US seriously lags that of other nations, we must face the fact that that lag is also the product of gender inequities.

Math confidence and ability are tied to status in culture and are determining factors in career selection. We tend to talk about girl's lack of confidence and not really boy's excess of the same. Instead, we are perennially reminded that we have a boy crisis and that it is of paramount consequence. When we stop using that term, "boy crisis," then I'll know we've gotten down to the business of understanding the real problems: binary gender stereotypes, given life in parent and teacher implicit biases, that exacerbate difference and create status hierarchies that far exceed the elementary school plight of "fidgety boys."

These math differences are a testament to the resistance that parents and American school administrators have to understanding the role that gender plays in socialization, identity formation or classroom dynamics. This plays out in unintentional ways in schools every single day.

Here is an example of how implicit bias plays out without malicious intent, but with serious consequences. At the end of seventh grade, my daughters' seventh grade accelerated math class was populated by roughly equal numbers of girls and boys, with roughly equal abilities and grades. When the school reconvened for eighth grade, however, a small group of students, all boys except one, had been moved up out of eighth grade at the request of parents who felt the curriculum did not challenge them sufficiently. Over the summer, the boys were given a curriculum by the administration, then placed in high school classes. I do not begrudge the boys or their parents their ambition, or the fruits of their hard work, but the school failed the girls in the class on multiple levels and, frankly, didn't do the boys any favors while they were at it.

When all of the girls in accelerated math returned, they did not understand why this had happened or how. The message they got was, very clearly, that the boys were better math students. How could they not? They were not given a chance to study the material, take a placement test or compete to do the same thing, which several of them might have had the opportunity been provided.

The school's math program was designed to take multiple levels of ability into account, but school administrators choose to ignore this. Instead of creating more rigorous, gender-neutral, grade-appropriate material administrators allowed the boys to move up, creating a perceptual gap where no real gap existed.

In the wake of the change, I repeatedly heard girls discussing why their male peers were in a more advanced class. In the end, they simply believe that the school would never have done this if the boys were not, contrary to what they knew to be the case in seventh grade, better at math then they were. In addition to undermining the girls' math confidence, the boys gained an academic advantage when it was time to move to new schools for ninth grade. This is one of more than two dozen examples I could describe that illustrate similar points.

No one who understands the serious impact of stereotypes and stereotype threat on children's academic lives would ever have considered this approach a good solution to the legitimate issues expressed by the boys' parents. As far as the girls were concerned, all in all, taking place as it did at exactly the time that girls begin to check out of math and science, to experience confidence-related math anxiety and to incorporate stereotype threat into their own math behavior, I'd say that the school administration's irresponsibility was a fundamental betrayal of the notion of equality in education and of the girls themselves as equally important at the school.

In the situation I describe above, none of what happened was explicitly discriminatory, like saying "Your boyfriend must have told you the answer," to a girl who solves a difficult math problem. Instead, both the undermining of the girls' confidence and the buttressing of the boys' resulted from a lack of institutional awareness or an explicit commitment to gender parity in education.

A lack of interest in these topics is why we have a national problem with a math, a sex-segregated workforce, a sex-based pay hierarchy, and enduring gender pay and wealth gaps. It's also why male wages are stagnating and boys are checking out of academia. And yet, when I talk to school administrators and parents, the most frequent response is that the "real problem" is a boy crisis in education. If we insist on sexing the conversation in this way, men's overconfidence, and boys' performing of rigid and outdated notions of masculinity, are the crises we should be talking about. In reality though, even that is a distraction from the pressing need to address the issue of "which" boys and girls we are talking about. Our unconscionable racial and economic gaps are also buried when we allow "boy crisis" arguments to hold sway unchallenged.

As Bryce Covert explained earlier this year in Think Progress:

"In Mississippi and Montana, no female students took the Advanced Placement (AP) test in computer science last year. In 47 other states where girls did take the test, they made up less than a third of the test takers, and in Utah they were as low as 4 percent of all test takers. (No students took the test at all in Wyoming.) Out of the 30,000 students who took the test last year, less than 20 percent were girls.

People of color had even lower representation among test takers. Not a single African-American student took the test in 11 states, no Hispanic student took it in eight, and they made up 3 percent and 8 percent of all test takers, respectively. The highest proportion both groups reached were 10 percent for black students in Maryland and 18 percent for Hispanic students in Texas."

If we actually cared to understand how cultural entitlements work and what the confidence gap means in education, we'd understand that girls' ROI on education is even lower than we know it already is. Especially girls of color. We haven't made these connections even though we have all the data we need. When you Google "The Confidence Gap and The Economy," the top hit is a 1961 article about John F. Kennedy. Which is actually kind of appropriate considering the fact that the top job for women today is was then: secretary. We don't call this a "girl crisis" or tie it to The Big Problem of The Economy -- when clearly we should. Schools need to be aware of how their default positions, or policies like the one above, reinforce these problems.

Consistently well-documented institutional and teacher biases, even among the most well-meaning and hard-working teachers, are serious issues in the American education system and yet, most schools are not directly addressing them through training or professional development. Boys, especially when you fail to differentiate them at all, are not a newly discriminated against group. The insistence on radical gender differences in learning fail all children. The abilities and needs of boys and girls are far more similar than they are different.

To answer the two initial questions above, yes, the boy crisis is highly correlated to our national gap, because the roots of girls lack of confidence and boys over confidence are fundamentally the same.

While the statistics here refer mainly to the United States, the same issues are being discussed across the developed world. There is no way to prove a direct correlation to the math gender gap and the fact that parents would like their their sons to be brilliant and their daughters to be thin and beautiful. No way to make people realize that the billions and billions of dollars they spend on mass produced stereotyped toys actively undermine their daughters' self-esteem and limit their career options. No way to prove a direct correlation between American parental and teacher expectations that boys will be better at math than girls and the fact that they turn out to be. Nor can you show causality between adults who embrace gender binaries and the fact that children do worse on math tests simply by virtue of checking of a box marked "Female." That this all is a theory. Like evolution.

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