Gender Stereotypes in School

Pink and blue, dolls and cars, English and math. For countless years, boys and girls have been starkly contrasted from one another, possibly contributing to the stereotype that math is for boys and English is for girls, but does gender really affect a student’s success in either class?

  1. There is a gap.

SAT data broken down by gender from the year 1972 to 2013 shows boys significantly and consistently outperforming girls in math. Boys also received higher scores in critical reading, but by a much smaller margin. The essay portion was first administered in 2005, and from 2006 to 2013, girls scored higher by an average of 12.5 points, lying between the critical reading gap of about 6.69 points and the math gap of about 37.67 points.

The book Women in Science: Career Processes and Outcomes, written by Kimberlee A. Shauman and Yu Xie shows that the top five percent of scores achieved in high school math sits at the ratio of two to one, boys to girls over the last 20 years.

A National Council of Teachers of Mathematics article written by Colleen Ganley and Sarah Lubienski explains that the gender gap in math may not be as large as some believe it is when it comes to the average student, though. On the other hand, for students that excel in school, the gap may be wider.

“[R]esearchers consistently find that gender gaps are larger among higher-performing students, which may partially explain why we see gender gaps in math-related careers, as these are often pursued by the highest-performing students,” wrote Ganley and Lubienski.

The gap may be shrinking though. For both critical reading and math, the gap was at a high in the late 1970’s and the 1980’s. The largest gap for critical reading was 13 points, during 1984 and 1988, while in 2013 the gap was 5 points. Similarly, for math, the gap topped off at 46 points in 1977, but in 2013 was only at 32.

At the end of the day, there still is a gap, so what’s the cause?

  1. Is it nature?

Psychologist David Walsh, Ph.D. explained some of the brain differences when it comes to language in a PBS article. While there are differences in the brain, these differences don’t account for one sex being more intelligent than the other.

“The controversy about overall intelligence between the genders is over,” Walsh wrote. “Contrary to what some wanted to believe, there is no evidence men are smarter than women, or that women are smarter than men.”

There may be differences in a female brain that could be advantageous in English, and the same with boys for math, though.

“Gender differences do show up in several cognitive areas, however,” Walsh wrote. “Just as there is a lot of evidence that girls’ brains give them a verbal advantage, likewise there is data showing that boys’ brains favor spatial skills that make it easier for them to visualize three-dimensional objects from different angles.”

  1. Is it nurture?

Mediamark Research and Intelligence’s American Kids Study of children from ages 6-11 from 2006 showed 28.9 percent of boys choosing math as their favorite subject compared to 21.6 percent of girls. For English, 3.2 percent of boys chose it as their favorite and 5.2 percent of girls.

Most students disagreed with the stereotype, saying math isn’t inherently masculine, and English feminine.

Junior Drew Lewis said he believes “the stereotype has truth to preference but not to skill level.”

Lewis also said nurture is more responsible for the stereotype than nature.

“I would probably say [girls are naturally drawn to English and boys to math] since just upbringing wise,” Lewis said. “More guys are more interested in not as much English related [subjects] like literature or music or poetry or reading in general when you’re younger, and so I guess that kind of just transfers as you move up the education level.”

Freshman Nathan Brown agreed that the stereotype may have some truth to it when it comes to interests and preferences.

“You see [girls] being more artistic and with theatre, there’s more girls in it, and guys do seem to be somewhat more logical so they veer more towards math,” Brown said.

Freshman Jui Desai said preference has more to do with personality than gender.

“I think it all depends on the person,” Desai said. “Maybe if they’re more emotional or if they’re more into their feelings, they might like English better, but I think it all just depends on the person and their abilities.”

The US Department of Education reports that, unfailingly, there are more boys enrolled in AP calculus and statistics. The gap can reach up to 10,000 more boys than girls across the US. For AP Statistics, however, in 2016 there were over 9,000 more girls enrolled in the course than boys.

Mrs. Susan Whitham, Avon’s AP statistics teacher, has noticed a difference in the amount of males to females in her classes in favor of the data from College Board from 2016.

“I have more females taking AP statistics than I do males. Sometimes by a very slight margin and other times, quite a bit,” Whitham said. “I’m not sure if that’s a factor of since I’m a female math teacher, if females gravitate toward this course.”

She said it could be because AP statistics combines multiple subjects.

“Statistics is a combination of reading, writing, and interpreting data, so you get the math and the English and the social sciences all mixed into the course,” Whitham said.

In 2016, there was over 4,000 more boys than girls enrolled in AP Calculus AB. In AP Calculus BC, the gap stretched to just under 20,000 more boys enrolled.

Mr. Anthony Record, who teaches AP calculus, has also noticed an uneven ratio of students in his classes.

“I would say it’s not exactly 50 percent,” Record said. “I think I’m probably hovering at about 55 percent male, 45 percent female.”

For 2016, there were just under 138,000 more girls enrolled in AP English Language than boys. Slightly under 105,000 more girls are enrolled in AP English Literature than boys.

A study conducted by Scientists at Newcastle University showed that female brains “can develop up to ten years earlier than boys,” according to a 2013 article from The Telegraph. 

English 9 honors and creative writing teacher, Mr. Aaron Meacham, said he believes maturity and cultural influences may make the difference when it comes to English classes.

“When I first started here, Mr. [Andy] Johnson [the department chair] had talked about success in AP classes and honors classes and talked about how in a lot of cases, what AP is measuring is maturity, and I don’t mean to say that female students are going to be more mature than male students, but socially, I think we call on young women to become more thoughtful a lot earlier than we do for young men, and I think that plays out more in the English world, the language world, the social, cultural world in here than in other disciplines like math or science for example where it’s maybe a little more internal and less socially constructed,” Meacham said.

The Rosenthal-Jacobsen study showed how heavily teacher perception influences student success. The students at an elementary school were given a test that was supposed to measure intelligence. Then the researchers chose about 20 percent of the students randomly and informed their teachers that they showed “unusual potential for intellectual growth.” Those selected students then scored much higher when they were tested again eight months later.

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur,” said Rosenthal and Babad in their 1985 study in which they discovered the “Pygmalion effect” which is a phenomenon which states when a person has expectations set for them, in the form of a stereotype or otherwise, they are likely to fulfil those expectations.

Whitham agrees that the stereotype could affect a student’s success more than their gender.

“I don’t necessarily believe [gender affects a student’s success in school], unless they believe that,” Whitham said.

She said she thinks the gap is more due to nurture than nature.

“If you’re brought up believing this to be true, if you’re brought up in a family that believes this particular stereotype to be true, or if you are surrounded by teachers or peers that also have the same belief, then there’s a good chance you will fall into that category,” Whitham said.

Junior Madison Delay agreed with Whitham, saying, “I don’t think this stereotype has any truth to it, unless you put truth in it.”

“We also need to remember that science is identifying group averages, not individuals,” Walsh wrote about research that indicated the neurological advantages boys have for math and girls have for English. “The distinctions are true for many boys and girls, but not for all. And, of course, biology does not mean destiny. Experience does play a role in how the brain is wired.”

“I know a lot of girls who are really good at math, and I know a lot of girls who are really good at English and then I know boys who are really good at English and boys who are really good at math,” Desai said.

Record also agreed that there are definitely students who don’t fit the data or stereotype.

“Some of my best students have been female. Some of my best students have been male,” Record said. “The world’s changed. The world’s definitely changed.”

The journal Science published a study by Paola Sapienza, Luigi Guiso, Ferdinando Monte, and Luigi Zingales a little under a decade ago that stated “the so-called gender gap in math seems to be linked to environmental factors, which means it could be eliminated by education or social programs.”

“I think as time goes on, that stereotype becomes less valid,” Record said. “I think there could’ve been a time in history where that could’ve held some truth, and I think it was just because so many people around believed that. I know that now there’s no way that there’s truth to it.”

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