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I Think I Can’t: Lack of Confidence in Math Keeps Girls Out of Lucrative STEM Careers

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April 18, 2017 11:10 am

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The rate at which women enroll in four-year colleges and complete bachelor’s degrees continues to outpace the rate for men. In fact, by 2025 women will represent nearly 60 percent of all university students. Yet despite their growing numbers on college campuses, women remain a small minority among students majoring in physical, engineering, mathematics, and computer (PEMC) sciences. It seems that personal beliefs about their math skills, and not actual math ability, in high school keep young women out of PEMC college classes and careers, according to new research from Florida State University (FSU).

The FSU study examines boys’ and girls’ perceptions of their math abilities in tenth and twelfth grade. The researchers analyzed longitudinal data to determine whether variations in those perceptions influence which students pursue advanced science courses in high school and PEMC majors in college. Overall, boys rate their math skills 27 percent higher than girls do, regardless of either group’s actual demonstrated math ability, according to Gendered Pathways: How Mathematics Ability Beliefs Shape Secondary and Postsecondary Course and Degree Field Choices. In fact, the gender gaps are largest among the most talented tenth- and twelfth-grade math students, as the graphs from the report show below. That means among students who demonstrate the highest potential for future success in math and science careers, girls have less confidence in their math abilities than academically-matched boys do, even though the girls are equally capable.

STEM blog graphs

“That’s important because those confidence levels influence the math and science courses students choose later in high school,” says Lara Perez-Felkner, assistant professor of higher education and sociology at FSU’s college of education and the study’s lead researcher. “It influences whether they choose colleges that are strong in certain science majors. It also influences the majors they intend to pursue and the majors they actually declare and continue on with in degrees and potential careers.”

In fact, Perez-Felkner and her team find that students’ tenth-grade perceptions of their math skills are the most influential predictor of a student’s likelihood of completing advanced science course work. After controlling for variables in students’ background characteristics and objective math ability, girls are 24 percent less likely than boys to complete advanced science courses in high school, the study says. Once those students reach postsecondary education, girls have a 4.7 percent chance of declaring PEMC majors, while boys have a 14.9 percent chance. But “[g]irls’ chances of choosing these [PEMC] majors more than tripled as their ability beliefs increased from low to high, even while controlling for key background, secondary school, and postsecondary characteristics,” the report explains. That means “increasing girls’ beliefs about their ability with challenging mathematics can raise their probability of majoring in PEMC fields,” the study says.

Additionally, increasing women’s presence in PEMC majors—and, by extension, in PEMC careers—could address persistent earning gaps between women and men. “Mathematics-intensive science fields are expected to constitute an increasing share of the labor market,” the study says, and PEMC fields offer some of the most lucrative careers. Nine of the ten highest paying majors are in engineering fields alone, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Furthermore, the gender gap in earnings is smaller in PEMC fields, the FSU study adds. While the average U.S. woman earns just 78 percent of what her male colleagues earn, female computer programmers, for instance, earn 92 percent as much as their male peers, according to the FSU study.

Because girls have more negative perceptions of their math abilities, they may steer away from scientific careers if they encounter challenges in their math course work, the study notes. Programs that help girls build resilience along with social support from teachers, parents, and peers can help girls overcome their lower beliefs about their math abilities, the study adds.

“It is difficult to change societal associations between gender and mathematics ability, which boys and girls experience and may internalize early,” the FSU study says. “[T]his research implies the need for continued investment in efforts to generate and sustain creative, multi-pronged approaches to help more talented and ambitious girls see themselves as—and become—scientists.”

Kristen Loschert is editorial director at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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