Study reveals patterns in STEM grades of girls versus boys

September 25, 2018, University of New South Wales
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A new study, led by UNSW Sydney Ph.D. student Rose O'Dea, has explored patterns in academic grades of 1.6 million students, showing that girls and boys perform very similarly in STEM—including at the top of the class.

The analysis, published today in prestigious journal Nature Communications, casts doubt on the view that there are fewer in STEM-related jobs because they aren't as capable in those subjects as men—a notion that has been supported by the concept that gender differences in variability lead to gender gaps in associated fields.

In their meta-analysis, the UNSW researchers compared gender differences in variation of from over 1.6 million students aged six through to university from all over the world, across 268 different schools and classrooms.

"We combined data from hundreds of studies, and used a method developed by my supervisor to comprehensively test for greater male variability in academic performance," lead author Rose O'Dea says.

A classroom with more variable grades indicates a bigger gap between high and low performing students, and greater male variability could result in boys outnumbering at the top and bottom of the class.

"Greater male variability is an old idea that people have used to claim that there will always be more male geniuses—and fools—in society," O'Dea says.

The team found that on average, girls' grades were higher than boys', and girls' grades were less variable than boys'.

"We already knew that girls routinely outperform boys at school, and we also expected female grades to be less variable than those of males, so that wasn't surprising. In fact, our study suggests that these two factors haven't changed in 80 years," O'Dea says.

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

In other words, the researchers demonstrated that academic STEM achievements of boys and girls are very similar—in fact, the analysis suggests that the top 10% of a class contained equal numbers of girls and boys.

O'Dea says that there are multiple reasons that these figures don't translate into equivalent participation in STEM jobs later in life.

"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."For example, we found that the ability overlap between girls and boys is much greater in STEM, and smaller in non-STEM subjects, meaning that there are fewer boys competing with girls in non-STEM subjects.

"So say you're a girl in a class and you're a straight A student. In your math class, you're surrounded by top-achieving boys, and then in English there's fewer boys that you're competing with, so it can look like non-STEM is an easier option or a safer path."

Stereotypical societal beliefs about what fields girls are seen to be successful in also play a role."Girls are susceptible to conforming to stereotypes in the traditionally male-dominated fields of STEM. Girls who try to succeed in these fields are often hindered by backlash effects," O'Dea says.

"For example, the stereotype that girls aren't good at maths actually makes it harder for girls to be good at maths, both because of the way we perceive ourselves and the way other people perceive us. We all have subconscious biases, and there's a strange phenomenon called stereotype threat, where being reminded of the stereotype connected to your identity can make it harder to defy that stereotype."

O'Dea says that there's no simple fix to work on the underrepresentation of women in STEM.

"Science and academia have a lot of structural issues that will take time to fix. However, there's a lot we can do to encourage girls to perform better at maths—for example, girls tend to do better when they're taught by a woman with a strong maths background, so they can see they can do maths, too."

Professor Emma Johnston, Dean of Science at UNSW, says a lot needs to be done to encourage girls to choose a STEM path."This powerful, evidence-based research has revealed that girls and boys are equally good at STEM subjects. 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—for example, UNSW's Women in Maths and Science Champions Program is a unique opportunity to support women who are completing their Ph.D. in UNSW Science. The program focuses on strengthening the cohort's communication and leadership skills to support their professional careers and their lifelong role of advocacy to inspire women to pursue a career in maths and science.

"The author of this landmark study is a great example—Rose is an incredible role model and her leadership in traditionally male-dominated fields like science and the AFL is inspiring to many girls," Professor Johnston concludes.

Explore further: Girls at single-sex schools up to 85% more likely to take advanced STEM subjects than co-ed girls

More information: R. E. O'Dea et al, Gender differences in individual variation in academic grades fail to fit expected patterns for STEM, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-06292-0

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julianpenrod
3 / 5 (6) Sep 25, 2018
Among other things, is the article trying to send a message by claiming to be about women in "science" fields, but using an illustration of a young woman in a manner and setting most associate with other than "science" pursuits?
Overall, though, the article smacks more of political social engineering than studying a situation. It starts with the premise that women are necessarily as capable and interested in everything as men, then it falls back on the "conclusion" that seeing more men than women in fields "scares women off". If someone is able, nothing scares them. What about the first generation? What made women less present then?
The article says that women would be drawn more to fields like writing, where more women are present. Then why are there fewer female poets, writers, painters, composers, chefs than male?
They won't accept that many if not most women are not that interested in such areas!
meeow74
3 / 5 (6) Sep 25, 2018
That is not what the article is saying. The article is saying that there is nothing in the academic records to show that girls or women are less capable of being successful in STEM areas based on the records of the students being reviewed.The researcher simply commented on why they think the current professional fields do not reflect the results of the academic study. The tired excuse that women are not in the field because they are not interested is used by people who 1) have never experienced the gender intimidation that happens in a male-dominated field, 2) like to see the status quo maintained and 3) think that because what the research says is counter to what they want to believe it's a all 'social engineering by a small group of disgruntled individuals. I'd like to ask you this; if you are not open to see what the results have to say, why did you read the article?
Old_C_Code
3 / 5 (4) Sep 25, 2018
Women are just as smart, they are just NOT AS INTERESTED in the STEM fields as men.
Old_C_Code
3 / 5 (4) Sep 25, 2018
Scandinavian countries proved, letting men and women decide their careers, there are more male engineers and more female nurses than all other countries. Women by gender, generally don't want to be engineers. That's not hard to understand.
Old_C_Code
2 / 5 (4) Sep 25, 2018
"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,"

This is IMPOSSIBLE, women generally are just NOT interested, yes, it's in their genes.
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 25, 2018
That is not what the article is saying. The article is saying that there is nothing in the academic records to show that girls or women are less capable of being successful in STEM areas based on the records of the students being reviewed.The researcher simply commented on why they think the current professional fields do not reflect the results of the academic study. The tired excuse that women are not in the field because they are not interested is used by people who 1) have never experienced the gender intimidation that happens in a male-dominated field, 2) like to see the status quo maintained and 3) think that because what the research says is counter to what they want to believe it's a all 'social engineering by a small group of disgruntled individuals. I'd like to ask you this; if you are not open to see what the results have to say, why did you read the article?
says meeow74

The gender is only partially responsible for success or failure in the STEM fields.
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
4 / 5 (4) Sep 25, 2018
-contd-
Whether male or female, and whether interested or not - the STEM fields are extremely rigorous and requires a dedication that is not as stringent in most other fields/careers. The medical field is also a part of STEM.
If a person drops out of their education and employment in STEM careers, it is most often due to a realisation that the study of and the work in that field often leaves little time for other areas of living, such as marriage and a family - although many do manage to juggle both, successfully.
All women are NOT of one mind - neither are all men.
Those who do stick with the rigidness of almost constant study and research will not be able to conceive of being involved in much of anything else, even jealously guarding their position in the field of their choice.

And it has nothing to do with "social engineering". If a woman exhibits everything that is required to get into, and remain in a STEM field, then she will only be considered for her brainpower.
granville583762
3 / 5 (6) Sep 25, 2018
Boys don't have babies, well not yet anywhey's

"The team found that on average, girls' grades were higher than boys', and girls' grades were less variable than boys, We already knew that girls routinely outperform boys at school, and we also expected female grades to be less variable than those of males, so that wasn't surprising. In fact, our study suggests that these two factors haven't changed in 80 years," O'Dea says"

Boys do not have babies, girls are brighter than boys it's not rocket science, girls are more talkative and social, they have to be, looking after babies and babies require a lot of social time, and as we know male science is not a girls thing, girls need a science environment where boys have to defer to girls as the boys defer to girls in most aspects of life

You can see from the feminine young ladies photograph, there are the patter of little feet are on her mind https://3c1703fe8...girl.jpg
leetennant
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 26, 2018
God we already knew this. Systemic discrimination and stereotyping hinders the ability of people in the group that's stereotyped and discriminated against from achieving in certain fields. We've known this from multiple research studies for almost 50 years. It's the same with African Americans and Indigenous Australians, it's the same with women in STEM.
Women's participation and achievement is higher in societies that are closer to achieving equality - like those in Scandinavia - than they are in countries such as the US and Australia that are lagging behind.
Old_C_Code
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 26, 2018
leet: we know women are not interested in STEM. This article is more BS from ignorant people who don't know this has been tried in the Scandinavian countries for some time now.

Sweden, more male engineers, and more female nurses than ANY COUNTRY.

leet you are simple and totally WRONG.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2018
When young femmes express an interest STEM education?
Jerks like old_coot are determined to beat that thought out of their heads!

The bigot who restricts access to education to anyone, lacks the moral backbone to compete honestly and fairly. This shows their deep abiding personal sense of inadequacy. They are inferior to all no matter how they bombast and bellow.

The reactionaries who deliberately oppress and waste the potential of a majority of Humanity. That the bigot's tantrum somehow proves their ridiculous lie of superiority over all.

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