Girls and boys perform the same in STEM subjects

A new study puts paid to old attitudes to gender aptitude for science. Rebekah Harry reports.

The notion of gender-based performance in school STEM subjects is illusory, research shows.

The notion of gender-based performance in school STEM subjects is illusory, research shows.

Caiaimage / Robert Daly / Getty Images

For years the male dominance of STEM-related careers has been explained away as women having less aptitude for the relevant subjects.

But a new study challenges this view, finding a high similarity between male and female performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It suggests that the top 10% of any class was, on average, equal parts male and female.

The study, conducted by Rose O’Dea, a PhD student at Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW), and published in the journal Nature Communications, collected data from more than 1.6 million students, from six years of age across 268 schools. It focused on the gender differences in variability regarding academic grades.

“We already knew that girls routinely out-perform boys at school, and we also expected female grades to be less variable than those of males, so that wasn’t surprising,” she says.

“In fact, our study suggests that these two factors haven’t changed in 80 years.

“However, what was most surprising was that both of these gender differences were far larger in non-STEM subjects, like English. In STEM subjects, girls and boys received surprisingly similar grades in both average and variability.”

Rose O’Dea goes on to speculate about why this is.

“Even if men and women have equal abilities, STEM isn’t an equal playing field for women – and so women often go down paths with less male competition,” she suggests.

Her comments are reflected in the study’s findings, which highlighted gender gap and gender variability differences between STEM subjects and later career paths.

Social stereotypes are also believed to be a contributor to the loss of females in STEM fields, a problem caused by under-representation rather than ability, and one that cannot be easily corrected.

Emma Johnston, Dean of Science at UNSW, says work needs to be done to encourage women to choose a STEM path.

“This powerful, evidence-based research has revealed that girls and boys are equally good at STEM subjects,” she says.

“Differential participation in STEM training and STEM careers must therefore be explained by other factors.

“Australia really needs more women to enter, stay, and succeed in STEM areas. We absolutely need to change the structural barriers to gender equality in science, but we must also change the strong negative stereotypes and unconscious biases as well.

“We must give our girls and women more successful science role models – something grand to aspire to. We all need to actively work to close this gap.”

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