Why Girls Leave Science And Math - Confidence, Says Psychologist
    By News Staff | September 5th 2008 01:00 AM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Unlike the social sciences, which are overwhelmingly women, and life sciences, which are about 50-50, the hard sciences have a true gender disparity and the search is always on for reasons why.

    Most parents and many teachers believe that if middle-school and high-school girls show no interest in science or math, there's little anyone can do about it but new research indicates that self-confidence instilled by parents and teachers is more important for young girls than their initial interest.

    While interest is certainly a factor in getting older girls to study and pursue a career in these disciplines, more attention should be given to building confidence in their abilities early in their education, says University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee Distinguished Professor Nadya Fouad. She is one of the authors of a three-year study aimed at identifying supports and barriers that steer girls toward or away from science and math during their education.

    It's a high-priority question for members of organizations like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Research Council as they ponder how to improve the numbers of women in STEM careers – science, technology, engineering and math.

    Nadya Fouad, vocational psychologist and UWM Distinguished Professor, is an author of a new study on what steers girls toward or away from math and science during their education. Credit: Alan Magayne-Roshak, UWM

    Many young students see math and science as difficult, and don't take any more classes than they have to, not realizing they are cutting themselves off from lucrative opportunities in college and careers. Recent studies show that girls have closed the gap with boys in mathematics, for example, but even now 20 percent of graduates with degrees in engineering are women yet only 11 percent of engineers are women.

    "For the last 20 years, there has been all this work done on boosting interest of girls early on. But I don't think that's it," says Fouad, whose research has found evidence that confidence levels in math- and science-related tasks are lower for girls than for boys.


    The study tracked girls and boys in middle school, high school and their sophomore year in college in both Milwaukee and Phoenix, with the main goal of pinpointing when the barriers for girls appear and how influential they are. Co-authors include Phil Smith, UWM emeritus professor of educational psychology, and Gail Hackett, Provost at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.

    Self-efficacy is not the only important factor for girls, the study uncovered. Results point to a complicated issue, says Fouad. For one thing, math and science cannot be lumped together when designing interventions because the barriers and supports for each discipline are not the same.

    "There were also differences at each developmental level and differences between the genders," she says. That means interventions would need to be tailored for each specific subgroup.

    Overall, however, parent support and expectations emerged as the top support in both subjects and genders for middle- and high-school students. Also powerful for younger girls were engaging teachers and positive experiences with them.

    The study confirmed that old stereotypes die slowly. Both boys and girls perceived that teachers thought boys were stronger at math and science. For boys this represented a support, while for girls it acted as a barrier.

    Top barriers for all age groups and disciplines were test anxiety and subject difficulty. But these differed between boys and girls. In addition, the genders formed their perceptions of math or science based on the barriers and supports, but they often arrived at different views.

    Ultimately, it's perception, more than reality, that affects the person's academic and career choices, says Fouad.

    Scholarly clout

    That's the take-away message from her more than two decades of work. A fourth-generation college professor, Fouad studies cross-cultural vocational assessment, career development of women and minorities, and factors motivating people to choose certain careers.

    She and Smith were among the first teams of researchers to empirically support a model that identified the prominent role that self-confidence and outcome expectations play in predicting career interests.

    The next step in the NSF study on girls, and math and science is to examine the relationship between barriers and supports, and then to widen the view to include women who are not working in those fields despite having an educational background in math or science. Fouad received funding from UWM on this project and has just received a half-million-dollar grant to focus on women in engineering.


    "Unlike the social sciences, which are overwhelmingly women, and life sciences, which are about 50-50, the hard sciences have a true gender disparity and the search is always on for reasons why."

    So just to review the sexist language in this article. Social sciences are overwhelmingly women, but that's ok, we're not at all interested in that, that does not need to be corrected. "Hard sciences" are overwhelmingly male - whoa! stop the presses! We need to investigate this. This travesty must be corrected! We must change our education system so that this never happens again.

    I am so tired of the obvious sexism in articles about women in science. The fact that nobody cares about areas where women outnumber men, and the fact that either situation is consider somehow wrong and something that must be corrected literally makes me sick.

    We're just animals, just like any other animal. Male dogs tend to be different than female dogs. And they don't have a culture. You can't explain the difference by saying that those evil patriarchs are keeping the womyn down. The only possible explanation is that nature makes them different. Why does this explanation work for every animal on planet earth, but humans require a different explanation?

    You make a fine point. No one is demanding gender equality in psychology, for example, or education, which are both overwhelmingly female. Though, oddly, education is blamed for fewer women in science even though most teachers are women. No one has figured that out.

    It's not limited to education or science. There is criticism about the lack of black NBA coaches, for example, but no complaints about lack of white players. They turn the statistical data on its head; since most NBA players are black, the racism is that so few coaches are, rather than 'we need more white players.'

    It's the nature of special interests to promote their own cause so professor Fouad needs to know why there are so few women engineers yet doesn't mind that in her field, psychology, it is 70% female.

    "Nobody cares about areas where women outnumber men," because those areas tend to be lower paid. Do your background reading. The best example is programming. Computer programmers were initially overwhelmingly female, and programming jobs were not well paid (because, you know, why would a *woman* need a steady income??). Then as the tech developed (not the skills required mind you, the tech) and became "the next big thing", men started pouring into the field. Pay levels rose concomitantly, and suddenly programming was no longer "women's work." It has managed to remain overwhelmingly "men's work" ever since, despite some progress towards equality in recent decades. I'd say it's pretty difficult to argue that women are somehow inherently disinclined to become computer programmers given that they made up the majority of the field before men thought up ways to make it "theirs".

    It's not "just nature" that determines pay scales -- it has far more to do with what our society values. And ours really doesn't value, in economic terms, those professions where women are in the majority as much as those where men are in the majority. You seem to believe that the "big deal" is in representation, when actually it's the accompanying impact on financial independence that most concerns individuals working in this area.

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I agree with most of what everyone has said in this blog which probably cancels me out a bit. Having been a female computer analyst programmer for many years, I found it interesting that at the start of my career, I would estimate that there were about 1/3 women to 2/3 men doing computer programming/analysing in the eighties, then in the nineties and noughties that went down considerably. At one point I was working in a place with over 50 men and only 3 women, and yes the money was good but so were the women who were left, but they tended to have different skills to the men. The men were usually the 'geniuses' who designed and wrote the latest most interesting systems and the women were the ones who could make the most difficult systems work, including the latest systems, when the men were either bored or frustrated with them and then left or moved on to something new. I don't remember many women getting the plum jobs of designing new systems and I only occasionally managed to do this myself, more often than not I was fixing or upgrading a system that was considered unfixable or adding a system to an existing system that was a nightmare or converting a nightmare system to a new system. Why weren't there more women computer programmers? I'm not sure, maybe they left through natural attrition or maybe somehow they didn't have the confidence in the interview process or maybe having children gradually put them at a disadvantage regarding keeping up with the latest technology. Probably it was because the IT industry is very cut-throat and emotions are very much looked down upon by most of the very clever, but possibly slightly autistic men who flourish in it and also dominate it, and maybe men are somehow better at hiding their emotions at work than women? Also because of the skew caused by the baby-boomers I think there were fewer opportunities for young people to get trained in those pretty high tech commercial environments, and the few that were employed for some reason tended to be mainly male students. At the end of the day, it probably just boils down to money, and that men are more cut-throat at getting the highest paid jobs. I think I was usually only employed because a) I had a good track record b) I'm good at the aptitude tests which are often given as part of the interview process and c) I was a reasonably attractive woman who they did not perceive as much of a threat, and they preferred having me reporting to them than maybe another less attractive (to them) man, who they might have to compete with down the track. I think that some men looked down on me as a woman IT professional but often I had the last laugh as I usually ended up pretty well paid in most of my jobs. As far as girls dropping out of higher level maths at school, I think that the problem is that the questions that students have to solve tend to be geared towards male interests, like how fast a plane flying from A to B hitting turbulence does whatever. If the problems were made more girl focused like how fast would a horse galloping from A to B encountering a five foot fence do whatever, then the girls wouldn't become so easily disinterested in the methods they are being taught for solving mathematical problems that they are not really interested in.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at