Gender-Based Math Gaps

New research highlights ways math instruction still perpetuates the gender gap.

February 2017, Volume 40, Issue 6

Despite advances in gender equity, troubling patterns in mathematics persist, according to a new study by the American Education Research Association (AERA). In “Have Gender Gaps in Math Closed? Achievement, Teacher Perceptions, and Learning Behaviors Across Two ECLS-K Cohorts,” researchers mined data from two nationally representative studies: ECLS-K:1999 and ECLSK: 2011. The first demonstrates gender gaps in both mathematics achievement and teacher perceptions of male and female mathematic ability. The second study extends this earlier analysis by comparing 1999 and 2011 cohorts from grades K through 3, and remarkably similar gender gap patterns were observed in three areas.

Gender Bias

In both studies, the gender gap developed early at the top of the achievement distribution and spread throughout during the first few years of elementary school. Girls represented fewer than one-third of students above the 99th percentile as early as spring of kindergarten. This representation worsens with girls comprising less than one-third of students above the 90th percentile and only one-fifth of those above the 99th percentile by grade 3 in the 1999 study and grade 2 in the 2011 study.

In addition, when both boys and girls had the same math achievement and similar behavior ratings, teachers underrated the skills of girls throughout the achievement distribution as early as grade 1. Results from the 1999 study indicate that teachers rate girls on par with similarly behaving and performing boys only when they perceived these girls as working harder and behaving better than those boys and this pattern of differential rating was unique to math. Stereotypes abound linking males to math and research suggests that teachers likely endorse this by attributing boys’ failure at math to lack of effort, and girls’ failure to lack of ability and success to hard work.


Closing the Gap

The third area of “Have Gender Gaps in Math Closed?” focuses on gender differences in learning approaches. Several studies have suggested that boys and girls differ in problem-solving, with boys more likely to use bolder strategies such as backwards reasoning, and girls more likely to use familiar, teacher given procedural strategies that may benefit early learning, but not development of confidence and achievement with more complex math.

In contrast to these studies, recent evidence from state tests has suggested that such gender gaps have closed, which may result from the fact that state tests tend to lack high-level questions on which gender differences are most apparent. The highly publicized lack of gender differences on state tests might have removed incentives for schools to address girls’ specific math needs. Research has shown that elementary school children continue to hold implicit and explicit stereotypes of mathematics as a male domain and women remain severely underrepresented in higher paying math-intensive fields. Early math success may influence career paths in both direct and indirect ways, and examining gendered patterns can help illuminate how early school experiences impact later choices and outcomes.

Featured in the January/February 2017 issue of Principal magazine.

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