Women's brains are virtually identical to men's in cognitive function. Science proves that. So why are so fewer women pursuing careers in technology, math and science? Why is there a glaring achievement gap along gender lines between school-aged boys and girls and their grades in math and science? Further, what can we do about it?

In the U.S., in every subject relating to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), girls' scores are consistently lower than boys'. Check out the data here.

Boys on average outperform girls… It doesn't matter if it's a discipline such as physics where far fewer girls participate, or biology, where girls are a clear majority of test-takers.

That's right. In every STEM subject: Chemistry, computer science, statistics, biology, calculus.

"In all 10 courses [taught and tested from K-12], the finding is the same: Boys on average outperform girls… It doesn't matter if it's a discipline such as physics where far fewer girls participate, or biology, where girls are a clear majority of test-takers. In all cases, the average score for girls was lower" (source).

The 2011 "Nation's Report Card" by the National Center for Institute Statistics found that the achievement gap in science seems to begin in 4th grade and increases gradually in each subsequent grade. It begins at two points in 4th grade and widens to six points in 12th grade.

Different brains?

Historically, people have claimed this gap is a result of innate differences between men and women. In other words, because men and women are built differently (have different brains), each sex is inherently (biologically) better-suited for certain subjects. Men are better at STEM. Women are better at liberal arts/humanities.

This mentality is false. A 2007 report from the National Academies, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering states: "Studies of brain structure and function, of hormonal modulation of performance, of human cognitive development and of human evolution have not found any significant biological differences between men and women in performing science and mathematics that can account for the lower representation of women in academic faculty and scientific leadership positions in these fields" (source).

In other words, "different brains" are not the problem.

Further, studies have shown that many countries do not have the gender gap in STEM subjects. In fact, some studies have concluded that on a global scale, girls on average outperform boys in STEM subjects.

Girls may avoid STEM subjects because they don't want to confirm the stereotype that girls are weaker in these areas. They don't want to "represent" feminine stupidity.

A significantly more likely cause of this gap is cultural factors, such as the "stereotype threat," which occurs "when people feel that they might be judged in terms of a negative stereotype or that they might do something that might inadvertently confirm a stereotype of their group" (source). In other words, girls may avoid STEM subjects because they don't want to confirm the stereotype that girls are weaker in these areas. They don't want to "represent" feminine stupidity.

Another explanation is that the tests are geared toward a certain personality: "These differences are potentially a question of the kinds of tests we have, and the kinds of self-confidence people have, and expectations they have" (source). Deeply entrenched gendered expectations of students may also affect outcomes of these tests.

Far-reaching consequences

Girls achieving lower in math and sciences (on paper at least) results in fewer women earning degrees in these fields which leads ultimately to a drastic underrepresentation of women in STEM. "A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found only one in seven engineers is female. Additionally, women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000" (source).

Only one in seven engineers is female
Women hold only 27 percent of all computer science jobs...
Less than 20 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science go to women.

Further, "women hold only 27 percent of all computer science jobs, and that number isn't growing. This is unsurprising when we take into account how many women are actually studying computer science in college; less than 20 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science go to women, even though female graduates hold 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees" (source).

So what can parents do about it?

First, we need to understand the importance of math and science. We need to understand how important it is to keep our daughters in these classes. Make sure your daughter understands how much math and science is necessary for certain college majors.

Combat stereotypes by remaining alert and critical of the world around you.

Take your daughters to science museums and engineering fairs. Encourage her with positive representations of math and science as opposed to "I always hated math." Or "I can't do math."

Combat stereotypes by remaining alert and critical of the world around you. Watch for female representations in the media and call it out in front of your kids: Women who are "eye-candy" only. Men who are intellectual and analytical alongside beautiful women who are flighty and silly, or overly emotional. Expose your daughter to powerful women in science. They exist, though we might not have heard of them. These and more suggestions can be found here.

Our daughters are as capable as men of succeeding in STEM. Let's help them begin to believe it, too.

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