Teachers put girls off maths and science, study finds

We all know that there’s a gender gap when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) careers. Despite the odd Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Meyer, women are still massively underrepresented in these fields and
a new study suggests that this disparity could start as early as age 11.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University and the University of Warwick discovered teachers’ unconscious prejudices meant they underestimated girls’ abilities in maths and science from around this age. The study was administered with three groups of students. They were each given two exams, the first graded by people who didn’t know their names, the second by their teachers.

Girls outscored boys in maths in the first exam, which was marked objectively, but got lower scores in the second test, which was marked by their teachers. The researchers concluded that the teachers tended to overestimate boys’ ability and underestimate girls, perhaps because they’d internalised stereotypes that girls are better at arts, boys at science and maths.

Unfortunately, this has a long-term effect on girls’ perception of their abilities (and on their future earning potential). The researchers followed these same students through high school and found that boys who’d been told they were good at maths and science when they were younger performed significantly better in exams than girls, even though the same girls had scored higher when they were younger. Girls were also less likely to choose to study maths at a higher level.

Teachers clearly need to take a good look at their own prejudices before they tell pupils what their strengths are, and perhaps marking work anonymously should become more widespread. Or, of course, they could also try not discouraging anybody…

Dr Edith Sand, one of the lead researchers, and an economist at the Bank of Israel, says, ‘It is clear how important encouragement is for both boys and girls in all their subjects. Teachers play a critical role in lowering and raising the confidence levels of their students, which has serious implications for their futures.’

Image by Blue Plover via Wikimedia Commons.

Diane Shipley