The U.S. Has One of the Worst Science Gender Gaps in the Developed World

What Women Really Think
Feb. 8 2013 4:12 PM

The U.S. Has One of the Worst Science Gender Gaps in the Developed World

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Boys outscore girls on science tests in the U.S., but not around the world.

(ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

The New York Times has illustrated the gender gap in the science scores of 15-year-old students around the world, and it’s not a pretty picture for the United States. Boys consistently outperform girls here, and that makes us an outlier. The only countries that boast a wider gap in favor of boys are Colombia and Liechtenstein. Many Middle Eastern countries—notably Qatar, Jordan, and the U.A.E.—report a significant gender gap in favor of girls (though lower science scores overall). In Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, the gender gap is miniscule, and the science scores are high. Shanghai registers no gender gap between boys and girls—together, they’re outperforming other teenagers across the globe.

The dataset comes from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which administers a standardized test to students in 65 developed countries around the world, then releases recommendations to help them tackle their performance issues. When it comes to gender inequality, developing countries need to focus on the basics: Getting girls into schools and keeping them there. But once girls are inside the classroom, the OECD’s primary directive is for countries to “address stereotyping.” To narrow the gap, countries like the U.S. should push parents and teachers to encourage girls to pursue STEM studies, recruit female role models in math and science to lend a hand, and work towards a “better balance in the gender composition of teachers” in those fields.

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In order to achieve that balance, we'll have to address the less-talked-about gender gap in education, too. At 15, boys still outperform girls in science in most OECD countries, but girls read better than boys in every single one of them. In the U.S., the percentage gap between boys and girls' reading scores is about equivalent to the science gap, just with the genders flipped. And the stereotyping that marks the STEM field is at work in the humanities, too. The American Association of University Women has found that college students still “view science and math as male fields and humanities and art as female.” Girls have more positive feelings about reading than boys do. Fathers are less likely to read to their children than are mothers. The two most gender-lopsided academic disciplines in the U.S. are engineering and teaching. Men make up 42 percent of secondary school teachers, but just 18 percent of primary and middle school teachers and 2 percent of kindergarten teachers. U.S. schools don’t just need more women teaching math and science—they need more men teaching just about everything else.

Given the high demand for STEM workers in the world economy, it’s unsurprising that we’re not eager to push more boys into MFA programs. But there's plenty to be gained from encouraging all American students to pursue teaching, healthcare, and foreign languages—all subjects currently ruled by women. When we focus on correcting the imbalance in STEM, and ignore the gender divide in female-dominated subjects, we end up reinforcing stereotypes for both boys and girls. As long as reading is known as the girl thing, it will be harder to convince girls that science class is really the place for them.

Correction, Feb. 13, 2013: This blog post repeatedly referred to a gender gap in math. The article and study cited described a gender gap in science.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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