URJHS Volume 7


Gender Gaps in Math and Science Education

Heather Davis
James Madison University


An argument is made for direct and tangible interventions to treat the symptoms of gender gaps in math and science education (as opposed to widespread and theoretical changes to science as a whole). Symptoms addressed include belief in stereotypes, lack of science self-confidence, and dissatisfaction with the way science education is presented. Treatments are discussed in the form of studies that have successfully or unsuccessfully addressed these issues. The goal is to use the results of such studies to develop effective interventions that will hopefully narrow the gender gaps with time.


The age-old stereotype that girls are naturally good at reading comprehension and that boys are naturally good at math and science has long been a focus of feminist critics of science. The consequences of this stereotype, however, have been hotly debated. Some researchers believe that girls’ performance in math and science suffers considerably as a result of the influences and expectations of society. Others argue that these differences no longer apply, and only slight differences in attitude and self-confidence in these subjects continues to linger. Whatever differences truly still remain, any difference is too much. In a modern world where women make up over half the workforce (Adya & Kaiser, 2005) it seems only fair that women should have an equal opportunity to pursue whichever career they choose. Traditionally masculine jobs, such as those in science, math, and technology, should not be out of reach for women.

In much of the feminist literature concerning science education of girls, authors acknowledge that gender differences persist but these authors seem to be divided into two general camps. The first camp’s focus is getting girls more involved with and comfortable in the existing science community because, “attitudes developed in the early years [are] vital” (Whitelegg, 1992). This camp focuses on interventions such as role modeling, mentoring, out-of-class science experiences, and other endeavors designed to increase science self-efficacy and success.

The second camp says that this is not the proper solution because it still considers masculine levels of achievement as the benchmark for success and portrays women as passive and insecure acceptors of roles (Phipps, 2007). Instead, this camp insists that the entire structure, language, and epistemologies of science need to be evaluated and changed. Few actual interventions are proposed as a means of implementing this solution.


To better understand these two camps one might consider an analogy. Much like the treatment of a person with a cold, the treatment of the problems apparent in the science education of girls can be treated in two ways.

When treating a cold, a doctor might try to find the cure for the common cold by obliterating the cold. Alhough this would be the more preferable, immediate, and complete method of treatment, this method has lacked success, evident by the lack of such a cure. This method would be analogous to the second camp of feminists who hope to drastically change the entire scientific culture to be more inclusive to women. Although this overall cure to the problems that women in science face would be preferable, it is also highly unlikely.

The other method of treatment for a cold would be to treat each symptom of the persons who are sick so that they can be more comfortable until their body naturally eliminates the problem. This method would be analogous to that of the first camp, which intends to make efforts that gradually close the gender gap by treating each of the symptoms of the problem. Although this solution is gradual and imperfect, it is more achievable because it uses small improvements that allow girls to cope with and overcome inequalities until they no longer exist. This is a much more feasible goal than hoping to find some broad and hypothetical cure for the common gender gap.

Because a gradual treatment of symptoms approach seems to be a more practical solution to the problem of gender gaps in education, it is necessary to understand what, precisely, these symptoms are. Although symptoms of the gender gap vary widely from individual to individual, an investigation of recent literature can establish what problems the patient is facing. With this knowledge, a method of treatment could be developed for elimination of each symptom.

One way to begin the process of treating these symptoms of the gender gap is to look at other countries that are not plagued by such symptoms. Countries such as New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Albania, and Thailand have overcome the gender gap in math achievement (Langen, Bosker, & Dekkers, 2006). One step, then, would be to look deeply into the science education practices of other countries and try to implement any successful strategies found. Another way to begin the process of treating the symptoms of the gender gap would be to look at symptoms and develop a plan of treatment by looking at recent literature to find out which types of treatment have succeeded and failed in the past. This article will focus on three specific symptoms: belief in stereotypes, lack of science self-confidence, and dissatisfaction with the presentation of science.

Gender stereotypes are presented to citizens of modern society in a variety of situations each day and vary from the obvious to the very subtle. As one of the most prominent symptoms related to the gender gaps in science and math belief, stereotypes should be investigated. The “ditzy, can’t do anything right sitcom mom” is an obvious stereotype that is easily recognizable. However, the fact that cleaning products and minivans are marketed towards women is more subtle. No matter how obvious or subtle the presentation of gender stereotypes, there is potential for such stereotypes to significantly affect the development of ideas of gender. These stereotypes can be presented and reinforced by parents or classmates but are difficult to erase once established. Stereotypes can additionally have negative impacts on girls’ education when an administration reduces academic requirement in response to stereotypes.

Stereotypes are engrained so early; parents may try to minimize the effects of stereotypes by employing their own treatments. For example, a recent study found that although mothers talk to female babies more, sex differences exist in the type of talk presented to female babies in relation to that presented to male babies. Mothers were shown to engage in more science learning and literacy related talk with male babies than female babies (Tenenbaum, Snow, Roach, & Kurland, 2005). These early experiences of science talk may affect the developmental course of babies depending on the gendered experiences they were exposed to by their parents early in life. Parents may begin to break down stereotypes by being conscious of and adjusting the amount of science talk they give their female babies as a means of developing an early interest in science. Other studies have implicated early interest in science as a key factor in pursuing a science, math, or technology related career (Packard and Nguyen, 2003). In this way, parent interventions are a first step toward increasing girls’ confidence and satisfaction with science by preventing belief in stereotypes.

Stereotypes are also compounded by the expectations of parents later in life. For parents, stereotypes are so engrained that they may consciously or unconsciously hold different expectations for their children depending on gender. The influence of mothers’ support was not found to be significant in a study concerning factors affecting pursuit of a technology-related career. However, the support of the father was found to be a key factor in this choice (Adya & Kaiser, 2005).

Level of parent education also related to the expectations of girls in science. A 2006 study showed that parental education level was a predictor of science grades and activities of girls. The authors speculated that this might be due to “differential expectations” of more educated parents who expect boys to take science courses but allow girls more freedom to choose whether or not to take science courses (Simpkins, Davis-Kean, & Eccles, 2006).

Parents are not the only individuals that sway girls’ beliefs in stereotypes. As girls get older, beliefs of their classmates are held in greater esteem than those of parents. During adolescence, gender stereotypes also become more pronounced socially. Girls not only have to deal with their own fears of science but also fears of rejection by peers if they do pursue science. This fear of social retaliation is related to belief in the stereotype of poor performance of girls in math and science. A study by Kessels (2005) reported that a sample of 8 th and 9 th grade children perceived students who liked physics as more masculine whereas students who liked music were perceived as more feminine. Boys were also reported to dislike students who went against sanctioned prototypes (e.g., girls who liked physics). The study also found that girls who liked physics felt unpopular with the boys. In a time when girls are dealing with the trials of puberty and social changes of moving to high school, such social repercussions could be significant in a girl’s decision to pursue science classes.

Although parents and classmates can both influence girls’ beliefs in stereotypes, once stereotypes have been established they are difficult to erase. A recent study showed that girls who were more likely to endorse the stereotype of girls being bad at math and science also evaluated themselves more negatively than girls who did not endorse the stereotype. In the same study, researchers found that girls who held the stereotype were more resistant to change either negativ self-evaluations or desires to pursue a science career (Selimbegovic & Chatard, 2007). Believing in stereotypes is clearly a counterproductive characteristic when it comes to increasing girls’ success in science because it makes them more resistant to change.

Unfortunately, stereotypes can have negative effects on the quality of girls’ education when administrators decide to lower science requirements in response to low performance. Often, school systems present students with two paths of science requirements, and if a student has had previous negative experience with science (as girls often do) they will choose the path with the lowest science requirements. Because girls are often subjected to stereotypes and other negative experiences they might be inclined to choose the path of least resistance. Studies show, however, that girls are becoming even with boys in the number of science classes taken, possibly due to college aspirations (Simpkins et al., 2006). Although it may seem counterintuitive, raising the standards that girls are expected to meet might actually lessen their beliefs in stereotypes if they see themselves succeeding.

A second symptom of the gender gap problems in science education is that girls lack science self-confidence, which translates to a loss of interest in science after junior high. One might think that this lack of confidence would come from lower achievement in the fields in question. This, however, is not the case as studies have shown that boys consistently produce higher ratings of science self-efficacy and self-concept even when their achievement scores are lower than or comparable to those of the girls. This low science self-confidence may, as girls grow older, translate into lack of interest in the sciences, which leads girls to drop out of science classes as soon as they are allowed.

One study demonstrated the tendency of girls to underestimate their abilities, signifying low self-confidence in relation to a science lab activity. Both boys’ and girls’ confidence levels increased as a result of a science lab activity. The respective levels of absolute level of confidence, however, were significantly lower for girls than for boys, both before and after the lab activity (Klahr, Triona, & Willaims, 2006). The most interesting part of this study was that while the girls and boys did not differ significantly in the amount of effort shown in the lab, the girls did not gain the same amount of confidence from a relatively similar amount of effort. This demonstrated that surmounting the initial lower confidence level of girls in relation to boys is not a matter of trying to increase the effort put forth by girls, rather that the solution must come by increasing the overall initial confidence level.

A second study investigating the unreasonably low science self-confidence of girls, even when their achievement scores were higher, produced particularly startling results. Although the girls in the sample for this study had higher science grades, they still only maintained equal self-confidence with the boys. Despite their higher grades, girls reported higher levels of science-related anxiety and physiological stress but lower levels of mastery experiences (Britner & Pajares, 2006). This is disturbing because it shows that even when they are performing at the same or higher levels than their male peers, girls are still less confident in their abilities. This suggests some underlying problem with the perception of the subject as a whole.

Often, these low levels of science self-confidence seem to translate, as girls get older, to a lack of interest in the sciences altogether. Not only do girls begin to shy away from science but they also begin to drop out of science classes as they progress through school (Stake, 2006). In addition, they also tend to lose interest in science outside of the classroom. A recent study focusing on submissions of questions to a science website showed that although girls contributed many of the questions in the sample, the number of questions asked by girls decreased significantly when they entered high school (Tsabari, Sethi, Bry, & Yarden, 2006). This demonstrated that not only does their fear of doing badly affect girls’ choice of classes but also decreases their overall interest in science, even outside of the classroom.

A final main symptom expressed by recent literature is girls’ dissatisfaction with science and the way it is presented to them. One reason cited for this dissatisfaction is a lack of relation of science topics to the real world. Often girls are also at a disadvantage on standardized tests of science that do not put equal emphasis on the science topics at which they excel. Solutions to this dissatisfaction with the way science is presented may lie in alternative forms of education.

Girls’ dissatisfaction with the way in which science is presented was also shown in a 2002 study in which girls expressed their thoughts on this subject to teachers. The study showed that girls want connections to science but have a hard time relating what they do in science classes to the world around them. According to Buck (2002), teachers interpreted girls’ requests by trying to help them understand the applications of science education. Solutions included use of current events, more projects and games, and relation of topics to daily lives. This, together with the previously mentioned studies, suggested that girls are drawn to natural and biological sciences because they can be related to the real world. Therefore, the solution to decrease the levels of dissatisfaction of girls in other areas of science may be to make an effort to relate concepts of other sciences to real life.

Girls have been shown to have very specific interests within the field of science (such as biology), yet these are the subjects that students are tested on least often (Kahle, 2004). This trend of girls’ interests pointing toward natural and biological sciences was also supported by the previously discussed study addressing questions to a science website (Tsabari et al., 2006); girls ask more questions relating to the natural sciences. The results of such studies make it questionable whether girls are actually performing worse on standardized science tests because they have lower ability levels or if gender differences only reflect a bias in question selection toward the hard sciences.

Because girls are dissatisfied with the way science is presented, alternative educational methods might be helpful in changing this perspective. For example, some studies have suggested a monoeducational system (rather than coeducational) as a treatment that may benefit girls as well as boys due to different learning styles and interests (Haussler & Hoffmann, 2002), thereby increasing satisfaction with the way science is presented to students. Others have tried supplemental programs, all-girl programs on weekends or after school with the goal of increasing satisfaction with the way science is presented to girls. A 2006 study implemented such a program and found that it increased students’ confidence and ability but not interest in a science career (Reid & Roberts, ). Still others have suggested an online learning environment to stimulate scientific discovery regardless of gender (Tsabari et al., 2006). All three of these treatments target the dissatisfaction of girls with the way science is presented and may have additional benefits of reducing girls’ beliefs in stereotypes because their education is tailored to their strengths.


The education of girls in science is a very important topic as it relates to future equality of the next generation of women. Therefore, it is understandable why feminist critics of science are so interested in correcting the flaws of the system. It is evident that direct and tangible changes need to be made. Although there are serious problems with the structure, language, and epistemologies of science, a complete overhaul of science is nearly impossible to implement. The more feasible approach is to discover the most prevalent symptoms of the problem of the gender gap in science education (e.g., belief in stereotypes, lack of science self-confidence, dissatisfaction with the way science is presented) and address these with treatments. Perhaps, with enough widespread treatments the gender gap will become negligible or a mere memory.


Adya, M., & Kaiser, K. M. (2005). Early determinants of women in the IT workforce: A model of girls’ career choices. Information Technology and People, 18, 230-259.

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Buck, G. A. (2000). Teaching discourses: Science teachers’ responses to the voices of adolescent girls. Learning Environments Research. 5, 29-50.

Haussler, P., & Hoffmann L. (2002). An intervention study to enhance girls’ interest, self-concept, and achievement in physics classes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39, 870-888.

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Selimbegovic, L., & Chatard, A. (2007). Can we encourage girls' mobility towards science- related careers? Disconfirming stereotype belief through expert influence. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 22, 275-290.

Simpkins, S. D., Davis-Kean, P. E., & Eccles, J.S. (2006). Math and science motivation: A longitudinal examination of the links between choices and beliefs. Developmental Psychology, 42, 70-83.

Stake, J. E. (2006). The critical mediating role of social encouragement for science motivation and confidence among high school girls and boys. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36, 1017-1045.

Tenenbaum, H. R., Snow, C. E., Roach, K. A., & Kurland, B. (2005). Talking and reading science: Longitudinal data on sex differences in mother–child conversations in low-income families. Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 1-19.

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Whitelegg, L. (1992). Girls in science education: Of rice and fruit trees. In M. Lederman & I. Bartsch (Eds.), The gender and science reader (373-385). New York: Routledge.


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