Most studies show that, on average, girls do better in school than boys. Girls get higher grades and complete high school at a higher rate compared to boys (Jacobs, 2002). Standardized achievement tests also show that females are better at spelling and perform better on tests of literacy, writing, and general knowledge (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). An international aptitude test administered to fourth graders in 35 countries, for example, showed that females outscored males on reading literacy in every country. Although there were no differences between boys and girls in fourth grade on mathematics, boys began to perform better than girls on science tests in fourth grade (International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement, n.d.). Girls continue to exhibit higher verbal ability throughout high school, but they begin to lose ground to boys after fourth grade on tests of both mathematical and science ability. These gender differences in math and science achievement have implications for girls’ future careers and have been a source of concern for educators everywhere.

During the past decade, there has been a concerted effort to find out why there is a shortage of women in the science, math, engineering, and technical fields (AAUW, 1992). In 1995, 22% of America’s scientists and engineers were women, compared to half of the social scientists. Women who do pursue careers in science, engineering, and mathematics most often choose fields in the biological sciences, where they represent 40% of the workforce, with smaller percentages found in mathematics or computer science (33%), the physical sciences (22%), and engineering (9%) (National Science Board, 1998).

Part of the explanation can be traced to gender differences in the cognitive abilities of middle-school students. In late elementary school, females outperform males on several verbal skills tasks: verbal reasoning, verbal fluency, comprehension, and understanding logical relations (Hedges & Nowell, 1995). Males, on the other hand, outperform females on spatial skills tasks such as mental rotation, spatial perception, and spatial visualization (Voyer, Voyer, & Bryden, 1995). Males also perform better on mathematical achievement tests than females. However, gender differences do not apply to all aspects of mathematical skill. Males and females do equally well in basic math knowledge, and girls actually have better computational skills. Performance in mathematical reasoning and geometry shows the greatest difference (Fennema, Sowder, & Carpenter, 1999). Males also display greater confidence in their math skills, which is a strong predictor of math performance (Casey, Nuttall, & Pezaris, 2001).

The poorer mathematical reasoning skills exhibited by many female adolescents have several educational implications. Beginning at age 12, girls begin to like math and science less and to like language arts and social studies more than do boys (Kahle & Lakes, 2003; Sadker & Sadker, 1994). They also do not expect to do as well in these subjects and attribute their failures to lack of ability (Eccles, Barber, Jozefowicz, Malenchuk, & Vida, 1999). By high school, girls self-select out of higher-level, “academic-track” math and science courses, such as calculus and chemistry. One of the long-term consequences of these choices is that girls lack the prerequisite high school math and science courses necessary to pursue certain majors in college (e.g., engineering, computer science). Consequently, the number of women who pursue advanced degrees in these fields is significantly reduced (Halpern, 2004).

Some researchers, on the one hand, argue that the gender gap in mathematics is biologically driven. Selected research shows that prenatal hormones circulating in the brain encourage differential development in the hemispheres of male and female fetuses (Berenbaum, Korman, & Leveroni, 1995). Others believe intelligence has its roots in genetics (Plomin, 2000). There is evidence, however, that sociocultural factors may influence girls’ attitudes toward math and science. For example, parents tend to view math as more important for sons and language arts and social studies as more important for daughters (Andre, Whigham, Hendrickson, & Chambers, 1999). Parents are more likely to encourage their sons to take advanced high school courses in chemistry, mathematics, and physics and have higher expectations for their success (Wigfield, Battle, Keller, & Eccles, 2002).

Teacher characteristics and the classroom environment also have been identified as contributors to this gender gap. Seventh and eighth graders attending math and science camps identified a math or science teacher as “a person who has made math, science, or engineering interesting” for them (Gilbert, 1996, p. 491). Unfortunately, many females report being passed over in classroom discussions, not encouraged by the teacher, and made to feel stupid (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Classroom environments can be made to feel more “girl-friendly” by incorporating

  • Low levels of competition, public drill, and practice
  • High levels of teacher attention
  • Hands-on activities
  • Female role models
  • Same-sex cooperative learning communities
  • Nonsexist books and materials (Evans, Whigham, & Wang, 1995)

Fortunately, sex differences in mathematical reasoning have begun to decline, and females’ enrollments are up in math and science courses (Campbell, Hombo, & Mazzeo, 2000; Freeman, 2004). Programs designed to interest girls in math and science and that demonstrate how this knowledge will allow them to help others appear to be working.