The gender gap in math and science is back in the news.  A new study suggests that somewhere girls are hearing that they are not good at math and science.  From Slate:

Schools have tried for years to encourage girls to explore careers in math and science, yet a stubborn gender gap in the STEM fields persists.

But new research might have an explanation: The messages we take in about our gender—like the old refrain that girls aren’t as good as boys at science–can influence the way we perform.

Believing you have innate qualities that make you good or bad at something—called “entity theories”— can change the way you handle a difficult task, psychologists have theorized. Children who adopt entity theories about a skill, like math or science ability, are likely to perform worse when challenged at those activities because they think their skills are inborn and are therefore less likely to put in energy and hard, constructive work.

A study published recently in Psychological Science, led by a researcher from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, takes this idea a step further by suggesting that children can adopt these beliefs from information they hear about their gender (and, presumably, about other social categories, too).

This maybe what is happening, but my feeling is that it is something else.  I do believe that girls think they are not as good at math and science than boys.  But I don’t think it is something they are being told. (I certainly was never told that.) 

Here is what I think is the real reason for the “gender gap” in math and science.

I have taught a lot of science from middle school all the way up to post-baccalaureate technical courses.  But what has been more informative than teaching classes and labs has been the endless hours I have sat tutoring at my kitchen table.  I have tutored friends, relatives, friends of relatives, coworkers, friends and relatives of coworkers, and even relatives of my husband’s coworkers in everything from geometry to organic chemistry and mostly for free.  If there is something that those countless hours working one-on-one with people desperate to understand math and science has taught me is that men and women think differently.  I know shocker right?

Here is how it almost always goes.  Faced with a difficult multi-step problem, males and females attempt to solve said problem with divergent styles.  A male will skim the problem and immediately start furiously writing, almost as if it is a race. He then circles his answer and looks at me with a proud look on his face. At this point, I burst his bubble and tell him his answer is wrong.  It is wrong because he did not read the question carefully and so instead has the right answer for a different question entirely.  (I believe this mental process is the same one that causes men to be reluctant to read directions or consult a map.)

A female will read the question carefully, consider it, and consider it.  She knows exactly what the question is asking.  She can usually see the first step in her head, but after that she does not know where to go next.  Since she cannot easily see the destination, she begins to panic.  Her lip starts to quiver and her eyes begin to tear up.  The problem never gets solved and all she has for her trouble is a blank piece of paper with a tear-stain on it. (I have experienced this phenomenon more times than I would like to admit so I immediately spot it in those women I work with.)

If I can get her to take just one step in the problem, she is usually more likely to get the question right than her male counterpart who didn’t bother to read the question properly. That first step, even if it is in the wrong direction, illuminates the next step, and then the next and finally the girl gets to the destination: the right answer.  But she has to get over her emotional response to a difficult question and take that first step.

Now of course not everyone fits into the male and female stereotype and there are plenty more learning issues that those I outlined, but I can usually predict the mistakes a student is going to make depending on their gender. 

So if you come to me for help with math or science, I have the following requirements.  Males have to read the question at least 3 times carefully before they even attempt to answer the problem.  Females have to take a deep breath when they feel that panicky feeling rise and just start trying to solve the problem.  It doesn’t matter if the first step is the right step.  Any step is better than none and usually just putting pen to paper is enough to carry her through the rest of the problem. (Parents, the above is good advice for either your boy or girl who struggles with math or science.)

So how does this relate to the gender gap?  Well, I don’t think girls are told that boys are better at math and science so much as they see boys furiously working while the they sit there paralyzed not knowing how to proceed.  The girl doesn’t realize that the boy sitting next to her will probably get the question wrong because he did not take the time to really read and digest what is being asked.  She looks around in her panicked state and sees the boys working at it which I believe translates into the belief that boys are better than girls at math and science.

What we need to be telling girls is that those panicked feelings they sometimes have are normal.  I felt them all through college and still managed to get the top chemistry award in my graduating class full of boys.  Our girls need to be told that they simply need to put those feelings aside and be confident that if they work at it, they are likely to succeed.  Girls have to be told that boys approach things differently, and just because boys look like they know what they are doing, that does not mean the boys have all the answers.  Girls can do it just as well, or even better. 

They just have to not be afraid to take that first step.

Rebecca Taylor blogs at Mary Meets Dolly