The term “gender gap” has become such an insurmountable cliché that even when unused, the phrase hangs loftily over any piece of news announcing the disparity of the sexes. Mentioned in reference to the unequal treatment of men and women in the workplace, at home, and on the athletic field, the phrase would be annoying if it weren’t so often true. In terms of mathematical aptitude, however, no gap exists.
In 2005, Larry Summers’ controversial comments about women’s lack of genetic predisposition towards math and science spurred a revolution of research into the alleged relationship. Caryl Rivers, at Women’s eNews, writes about the studies that have been done in this area. One, from the National Science Foundation, showed gender parity score-wise on standardized math tests. A National Assessment of Educational Progress had similar findings. If not inherent genetically, then the academic “gender gap” in the math and science fields must have other causes.
Rivers believes the answer lies in sociology. She explains that “drive, leadership ability, a talent for pleasing bosses, personality, and skill at political maneuvering” all have a role in creating the gender imbalance. With all of these elements in mind, it is worth considering if girls’ decisions about possible fields of study is at all influenced by society’s expectations about what they should be doing.
Debra Viadero, writing for Education Week, investigated similar studies. She sought information about girls’ actual desire to enter the fields. One study’s analysis of high school valedictorians across the country and their prospective college majors revealed a preponderance of boys leaning towards the math and sciences, and girls towards humanities and social sciences. What if the simplest explanation is actually the right one and, as Viadero speculates, “Women may just not want to pursue high-level careers in math and science?”
Many refuse to accept this rationalization. One possibility is that girls who do well in math do just as well in the humanities, thus broadening their career choices. Additionally, it seems women do not stay in these fields as long as men do even when they choose them, gravitating more towards a balance of work and family. Whatever the reason, the two articles suggest with abounding evidence that the reason for the “gap,” in this case, is not genetic. Just as many girls are in calculus class as boys, even if they aren’t teaching it later in life.