Smartest Girls Find Gender Gap in Math, Science

At the highest levels of academic ability among seventh-grade students, boys still outnumber girls by more than 3-to-1 in math and science, a study finds.
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At the highest levels of academic ability among seventh-grade students, boys still outnumber girls by more than 3-to-1 in math and science, a study finds.

The gender gap in math and science between the most talented seventh-grade boys and girls is much smaller today than it was 30 years ago, but there's still a big disparity, and it does not appear to be going away, a team of researchers at Duke University has found.

In a new study for the journal Intelligence, the team examined 30 years of test data from 1.6 million smart students, the top 5 percent of seventh-graders in 16 states. They focused on the most gifted students, the top 0.01 percent who in seventh grade were able to score 700 or above on SAT math section or the equivalent on the ACT in math. That's a level of performance that even most college-hopeful high school juniors do not achieve.

At these highest levels of math ability, the researchers found, seventh-grade boys outnumbered girls by 4-to-1 on the SAT and 3-to-1 on the ACT. That's a big improvement from the early 1980s, when the ratio for top-scoring math students was 13 boys to every girl, a troubling gap identified back then by other researchers and confirmed again by the Duke team. But the new study shows that today's math gender gap among the most gifted students has been in place for two decades.

In addition, the Duke team found the ratio of high-scoring boys to girls on the ACT test for scientific reasoning is 3-1 — another gender gap that has held steady for two decades. Remarkably, 18 boys scored a perfect score on that test between 1990 and 2010, compared to only one girl. The SAT and ACT tests are widely used by American colleges to help determine admissions.

The new findings run counter to previous studies (here and here) suggesting that gender differences in math and science among the best students no longer existed or were meaningful. The advantage that boys have in scientific reasoning may result from more familiarity with and interest in science, the Duke researchers said, adding, "It is possible that visits to science museums and extracurricular science classes are more common among boys and this may partly explain these results."

Highly gifted girls performed better than highly gifted boys on SAT tests for writing and verbal reasoning, obtaining scores of 700 or above, but the difference was small, the study found.

A team of four researchers from the Duke Talent Identification Program conducted the study. Since 1981, the program has held an annual talent search, giving the SAT and ACT to seventh-graders to assess their academic ability. Duke offers summer courses, independent study, study abroad and financial aid to gifted students to accelerate their education.

According to the new study, the pre-adolescent gender gap in math and science shows up most sharply at the highest levels of performance. The disparity there may help explain why women are still underrepresented today in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, the authors said. It's a gap that persists, they said, even though many girls today are encouraged to study math and science, and even though there are role models among women professionals and Nobel Prize winners in the field.

"It's apparent that there are still differences in ability levels due to gender, even as women have occupied more STEM jobs in the last 30 years," said Jonathan Wai, the lead Duke researcher. "We will continue our research, but for now it seems that ability is still a factor in the equation."

Previous studies have suggested that women are more drawn to people and men are more drawn to things, and that difference could explain the paucity of women in the fields of science and engineering. The Duke researchers agree that preferences are likely important, and they don't rule out the continued impact of biases and barriers. Why ability still seems to play a role, they don't know.

"Sex differences favoring males in math ability and science reasoning may have declined from the early 1980s to present, possibly in response to fewer barriers, more encouragement and role models provided to females, but the fact that they are still substantial and have remained relatively stable for two decades may at least partly account for the dearth of women in STEM careers ..." the authors conclude.