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The gender gap in maths-related subjects is proving stubbornly persistent. In almost all countries, far fewer women than men choose to pursue potentially lucrative careers in maths, physics, engineering and computer science. While initiatives such as providing girls with mentors and role models, and taking steps to tackle stereotypes and unconscious gender biases, can be helpful, their effects are often small. At the current rate of change, women are likely to remain outnumbered in maths-related fields for decades to come.

It’s not that girls and women are bad at maths. While boys do tend to perform better than girls in maths tests, the average gender difference is small. In the UK in 2019, for example, 39% of 18-year-old girls who studied maths at A-level achieved an A or A*, compared to 42% of boys. For A-level physics, 29% of girls achieved the top two grades, compared to 28% of boys. But in both subjects, boys heavily outnumbered girls – by more than 3:1 in the case of physics. So why are so many girls turning their backs on these subjects?

Could it be that girls are not being pushed out of maths, so much as being pulled into fields that allow them to use their superior language skills?

A study published recently in the journal PNAS suggests that the answer may in fact lie in male-female differences in academic ability, but the ability in question is reading, not maths. Studies have consistently shown that girls and women outperform their male counterparts in reading and writing. They may also be better at acquiring foreign languages.

Thomas Breda, at the Paris School of Economics, and Clotilde Napp, at Paris Dauphine University, wondered whether this male-female difference in reading could help explain the gender gap in STEM careers. Could it be that girls are not being pushed out of maths, so much as being pulled into fields that allow them to use their superior language skills?

Breda and Napp found that the greater a student’s advantage in reading, the less likely they were to plan a career in maths (Credit: Getty Images)

‘Consider relative strengths instead of absolute ability’

Every three years, hundreds of thousands of 15-year-olds in more than 60 countries take part in the PISA study, run by the OECD. Students complete tests in maths, reading and science, and answer questions about their future career intentions. When Breda and Napp looked at the data from PISA 2012, they realised they were on to something.

“There were small gender gaps in maths performance at 15 years old, but these gaps were too small to explain the huge gender segregation in STEM,” says Breda. But for reading, the tables were turned; the girls were much better than the boys. As a result, when a boy and a girl had similar scores in maths, the girl usually had an even better score in reading.

The greater a student’s advantage in reading, the less likely they were to plan a career in maths, even when their maths score was also high

When Breda and Napp compared each student’s scores in reading and maths, they found that this ‘difference score’ accurately predicted how likely that student was to plan to pursue further studies in maths. The greater a student’s advantage in reading, the less likely they were to plan a career in maths, even when their maths score was also high. Notably, this was true for both boys and girls. “Nothing is gender specific,” says Breda. “That’s what makes these results interesting. You can explain much of the difference between boys and girls [in career choices] with the difference between their grades in maths and reading.”

Other experts who have examined the shortfall of women in the physical sciences agree that this is a plausible explanation for the observed occupational trends. “It makes a lot of sense,” says Sarah Cattan, associate director and head of the Education and Skills sector at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London. “It shows that what matters most when boys and girls choose their field of study is not how good they are in maths or in reading, but how good they are in maths relative to reading. So this is really a story about comparative advantage rather than absolute advantage.”

Lise Eliot, professor of neuroscience at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, agrees. “It makes sense, and prior research supports, that in a competitive academic environment, students would consider their relative strengths as opposed to their absolute math ability when making career decisions.”

Test scores are a factor in how people decide careers – but they're not the only factor (Credit: Getty Images)

How you perceive your abilities matters

However, she adds that test scores are probably not the only factors on which the students are basing their choices. “Such decisions are always made in a social context that includes inter-student competition and gender role conformity. How do boys who are good at maths but not so good at reading project their prowess in the math classroom, for example? And are ‘relative strengths’ reinforced by teacher bias?”

Parents and teachers may also treat boys and girls differently, often without realising it, because of the ingrained stereotype that reading is for girls and maths is for boys. One study showed that primary school teachers overestimated the performance of boys in maths and science but underestimated that of girls, for example, while findings of another suggested that parents may read more to their preschool daughters.

Whether there are also innate differences in male and female brains that predispose boys and girls to acquiring different skill sets is controversial. In any case, differential socialisation of boys and girls begins at a young age, and can influence how individuals perceive their own abilities and how much they invest in different subjects. “If you take girls and boys that perform similarly in maths, the girls will be much more likely than the boys to think that they perform poorly,” says Breda. This is partly because they have internalised the stereotype that maths is not for them, but also because we all judge our ability in maths by comparing it to our ability in reading, he adds.

Ingrained stereotypes – such as reading is for girls and maths is for boys – can lead teachers to treat boys and girls differently (Credit: Alamy)

None of this means that we should stop efforts to counter stereotypes about girls’ aptitude for maths and science versus reading. But it does suggest that much of the impact of these stereotypes occurs not at the point at which girls choose a career, but many years earlier. By encouraging girls to engage more in reading than in maths, stereotypes help generate the superior reading skills that will later go on to drive the girls’ career choices. This may also explain why initiatives targeting adolescent girls and women have had relatively limited success in increasing participation in maths-based careers: they may simply be too late.

Instead, closing the gender gap in maths and the physical sciences may actually depend more on reducing boys’ comparative disadvantage in reading.

Make boys better readers

David Geary, a cognitive developmental psychologist at the University of Missouri, says that this would also have broader benefits for society. “If you look at the students that are poorly educated, it’s mostly boys, and mostly in reading and writing.” Failing to tackle this could lead to many boys, especially from low-income families, being left “under-employed or unemployable”. Moreover, he says, there can be a tendency to view gender gaps in which men are the minority as somehow less of a concern than those where women are outnumbered. “The whole thing is disingenuous in the sense that no-one talks about the gap in veterinary medicine, for example, which is more than 80% women now.”

The reading gap is smaller among children from more educated households, which provide home instruction and likely value reading and writing more highly (Credit: Alamy)

Eliot is confident that the reading gap can be reduced, saying it’s smaller among children from more educated households, which provide home instruction and likely value reading and writing more highly. “That suggests that gender reading and writing gaps are as close-able as the gender gap in math, with the right educational interventions,” she says.

Raising the status of reading and associated career paths would also be good news for girls and women. “Most of these debates are often presented from a male-centred point of view,” notes Breda. “We say: ‘We should push girls to do science. Girls should be more like boys and women should be more like men.’ But that’s not a good way to think of it, it’s already biased.”

Ensuring that boys and girls acquire a solid foundation in both maths and reading, and that both skill sets are given equal status, as well as continuing efforts to remove gender stereotypes will all be important for ensuring that all individuals have as many options open to them as possible. Whether eliminating these differences will in fact remove differences in male-female subject choices, or whether other differences will emerge, remains to be seen.

“Do we want to swap biologists for computer programmers?” says Geary. “Maybe, maybe not. But it's up to the individual to make that choice.”

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