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08 / 31 / 2016

Women 1.5 Times More Likely to Leave STEM Pipeline after Calculus Compared to Men: Lack of Mathematical Confidence a Potential Culprit

PLOS Biology


Abstract: The substantial gender gap in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce can be traced back to the underrepresentation of women at various milestones in the career pathway. Calculus is a necessary step in this pathway and has been shown to often dissuade people from pursuing STEM fields. We examine the characteristics of students who begin college interested in STEM and either persist or switch out of the calculus sequence after taking Calculus I, and hence either continue to pursue a STEM major or are dissuaded from STEM disciplines. The data come from a unique, national survey focused on mainstream college calculus. Our analyses show that, while controlling for academic preparedness, career intentions, and instruction, the odds of a woman being dissuaded from continuing in calculus is 1.5 times greater than that for a man. Furthermore, women report they do not understand the course material well enough to continue significantly more often than men. When comparing women and men with above-average mathematical abilities and preparedness, we find women start and end the term with significantly lower mathematical confidence than men. This suggests a lack of mathematical confidence, rather than a lack of mathematically ability, may be responsible for the high departure rate of women. While it would be ideal to increase interest and participation of women in STEM at all stages of their careers, our findings indicate that if women persisted in STEM at the same rate as men starting in Calculus I, the number of women entering the STEM workforce would increase by 75%.

04 / 19 / 2014

Gender, culture, and mathematics performance

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A.


Using contemporary data from the U.S. and other nations, we address 3 questions: Do gender differences in mathematics performance exist in the general population? Do gender differences exist among the mathematically talented? Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent? In regard to the first question, contemporary data indicate that girls in the U.S. have reached parity with boys in mathematics performance, a pattern that is found in some other nations as well. Focusing on the second question, studies find more males than females scoring above the 95th or 99th percentile, but this gender gap has significantly narrowed over time in the U.S. and is not found among some ethnic groups and in some nations. Furthermore, data from several studies indicate that greater male variability with respect to mathematics is not ubiquitous. Rather, its presence correlates with several measures of gender inequality. Thus, it is largely an artifact of changeable sociocultural factors, not immutable, innate biological differences between the sexes. Responding to the third question, we document the existence of females who possess profound mathematical talent. Finally, we review mounting evidence that both the magnitude of mean math gender differences and the frequency of identification of gifted and profoundly gifted females significantly correlate with sociocultural factors, including measures of gender equality across nations.

01 / 14 / 2014

Explaining the Gender Gap in Math Test Scores: The Role of Competition

Journal of Economic Perspectives


Abstract: The mean and standard deviation in performance on math test scores are only slightly larger for males than for females. Despite minor differences in mean performance, many more boys than girls perform at the right tail of the distribution. This gender gap has been documented for a series of math tests including the AP calculus test, the mathematics SAT, and the quantitative portion of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). The objective of this paper is not to discuss whether the mathematical skills of males and females differ, be it a result of nurture or nature. Rather we argue that the reported test scores do not necessarily match the gender differences in math skills. We will present results that suggest that the evidence of a large gender gap in mathematics performance at high percentiles in part may be explained by the differential manner in which men and women respond to competitive test-taking environments. The effects in mixed-sex settings range from women failing to perform well in competitions, to women shying away from environments in which they have to compete. We find that the response to competition differs for men and women, and in the examined environment, gender difference in competitive performance does not reflect the difference in noncompetitive performance. We argue that the competitive pressures associated with test taking may result in performances that do not reflect those of less-competitive settings. Of particular concern is that the distortion is likely to vary by gender and that it may cause gender differences in performance to be particularly large in mathematics and for the right tail of the performance distribution. Thus the gender gap in math test scores may exaggerate the math advantage of males over females.