Unsuited to science: a self-fulfilling prophesy

Cultural bias is an intriguing idea.

It never occurred to me while growing up to be wary of math just because I was female.

I was unapologetically good at it, signed up for contests, and placed at the top of my (admittedly small) nation’s math olympics.

(If the braggy tone of this reminiscence disturbs you, you should certainly stop reading. But let me add that it’s only a boast if you assign a high value to math and science.)

If you are tempted to see my math adventures as the exception that proves the rule – the product of individual aptitude or family background – let me assure you I was not the only girl in the room. Since we never noticed contestants’ gender, I would guess we were evenly split between males and females.

The data bear me out.

The gender gap in math and science favors boys over girls in many, but not all, countries. Studies also suggest that perceptions of male versus female ability have shifted over time. Data disprove theories of innate gender predisposition and strongly suggest cultural bias.

While girls worldwide outperform boys in reading, boys begin to outperform girls in math in middle school. By eighth grade, the gender gap in mathematics is 9 points in favor of boys, according to the latest PISA tests (which compare educational achievement in 70-plus countries).

However, in some countries, the math gap is not statistically significant, or else girls outperform boys. These countries are a fun medley: Albania,Trinidad and Tobago, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, my birth country Bulgaria (which validates my beginning intuition), Sweden, Indonesia, Shanghai (a separate, very large, and very successful jurisdiction), Kazakhstan, Jordan, Slovenia…

International comparisons show that, in Shanghai, the highest-performing education system in the world, girls score more highly in mathematics than boys in most other countries!

Girls are not innately unsuited to math. Instead, studies find, schools and societies foster different levels of self-confidence, motivation, and interests in different subjects. Surveys show that girls lack the same self-confidence as boys in science and math, and striking differences in parental encouragement exacerbate the problem. Parents are much more likely to expect their sons to work in science careers than their daughters, even when they show the same ability.

You would think that western democracies would have achieved the most level playing field for women in science.

Not so.

Countries where women earn the majority of science degrees do exist. They include Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Romania, Algeria, Bulgaria (again), Malaysia, Kyrgyzstan, Italy, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Panama, Lebanon, Argentina, Jordan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, and Greece.

Despite the diversity, I see at least two distinct sub-groups: former Eastern Bloc and Muslim countries.

My experience is with the Eastern Bloc, so let’s start there. I see communist-era “gender-equality” policies at work – a very strong legacy born in part of ideology, in part of necessity (labor shortages in labor-intensive economies).

But what explains the Muslim group?

An analysis by Maria Charles in the sociological publication Contexts called “What gender is science” provides some insights.

The most gender-integrated science programs are in Malaysia, where women’s 57-percent share of science degree recipients precisely matches their share of all college graduates, writes Charles. While American computer scientists are depicted as hackers and geeks, she writes, computer science in Malaysia is deemed well-suited to women. It is seen as theoretical (not physical) and it takes place in offices (thought to be women-friendly places). Talk about (reverse) gender bias!

Women’s relatively weak presence in science fields in the United States is partly due to economic, institutional, and cultural features common to the affluent West, Charles also writes. One such feature is the great diversity of educational and occupational pathways. As school systems in the West grew, policymakers sought to accommodate women’s presumed “human-centered” nature by specifically developing educational programs aligned with perceptions.

In contrast, in developing and transitional economies, policies were driven by concerns of advancing development. Development efforts often started during science fields’ initial phase of growth – before they had acquired a strong masculine image.

While Americans today believe women should have equal rights, they also believe men and women are very different. Believing in difference can actually produce difference, as women “censor” themselves as to what they take up and, consciously or not, seek to conform to gender expectations.

Now for the historic aspect.

“The Science Education of American Girls” by Kim Tolley (also quoted by Charles) finds it was girls who were overrepresented in science in 19th-century America. Middle-class boys dominated the higher-status classical humanities programs thought to require top rational powers and required for university admission. Science education was regarded as preparation for motherhood, social work, and teaching. Science fields became “lucrative” in the 1950s, which increased men’s interest.

Back to myself, and why I did not end up a mathematics professor as everyone expected.

One reason I veered into linguistics, and not theoretical mathematics, was to prove, with the impetuosity of youth, that I could! I wanted to show the world I could overcome what I saw as a personal deficit.

Another reason was that ubiquitous cultural bias. Linguistics was, in that place and time, a much more “prestigious” field of study.

Even so, as soon as I could in grad school, I loaded my coursework with classes such as “mathematical linguistics” and “computer language.”

One can only go so far against nature.

Kremena Spengler is a former linguistics professor and journalist with the BTA, the Bulgarian national news agency, and Reuters. After some world travel, she moved to live a quiet life and raise children in New Ulm, joining The Journal in 1997. She loves math and wrote this column to indulge herself, despite being warned it’s of little interest to farmers in springtime.

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