New Study Begs Question: Are Gender Stereotypes Making Kids Dumber?

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We’ve heard it again and again and again: Girls — especially American ones — are way worse at STEM subjects (that is, science, technology, engineering and math) than boys. But a new study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that girls around the world — including the U.S. — get better grades than boys in math and science from junior high through high school. 

Researchers reviewed the results of 308 other studies — which means the findings are more reliable than those of any other type of study because it uses a bigger data set. The study looked at the grades of over 1 million students (538,710 boys and 595,332 girls) in countries including the U.S. (70% of the sample), Norway, Canada, Turkey, Germany, Mexico, Hong Kong, India and Iran, among others. In comparison, most other studies we read about look at kids’ performance on a single aptitude test and not a full year of grades. And the findings showed that around the world, girls outperformed boys in every subject through middle and high school.

“Although gender differences follow essentially stereotypical patterns on achievement tests in which boys typically score higher on math and science, females have the advantage on school grades regardless of the material,” said lead study author Daniel Voyer, PhD, of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada. “School marks reflect learning in the larger social context of the classroom and require effort and persistence over long periods of time, whereas standardized tests assess basic or specialized academic abilities and aptitudes at one point in time without social influences.”

What’s more, APA’s new study debunks the backlash theory of a “boy crisis in education” supposedly caused by (you guessed it) feminism. The movement’s beacon, The War on Boys, published in 2013, claims that “girls and women were once second-class citizens in the nation’s schools. Americans responded with concerted efforts to give girls and women the attention and assistance that was long overdue. Now, after two major waves of feminism and decades of policy reform, women have made massive strides in education…[but] the problem of male underachievement is persistent and worsening…boy-averse trends such as the decline of recess and zero-tolerance disciplinary policies have turned our schools into hostile environments for boys. As our schools become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, competition-free, and sedentary, they move further and further from the characteristic needs of boys.”

But APA’s research shows that, in fact, boys have underperformed girls in school long before the rise of modern feminism. The records researchers reviewed were from nearly a century, from 1914 through 2011, and it turns out that throughout the entire 97-year period, girls consistently received better grades than boys.

Does this mean girls are smarter than boys? No. Possibly the discrepancies in grades and test scores are due to a difference in measurement: Boys and girls are equally good at learning any subject, they just perform differently under different testing situations. As the study notes, “Gender differences in learning styles [might be why girls perform better in school than boys]. Previous research has shown girls tend to study in order to understand the materials, whereas boys emphasize performance, which indicates a focus on the final grades.”

Or, possibly, it’s just another case of nurture over nature. “Parents may assume boys are better at math and science so they might encourage girls to put more effort into their studies, which could lead to the slight advantage girls have in all courses,” wrote the APA. In other words, our own gender biases are dragging us down. We’re all a factor of how we’re raised — and if we’re raised to believe we can’t (or shouldn’t) do something well, we’ll almost certainly perform worse at it. As Salon and a HuffPo writers have astutely pointed out about the “boy crisis” in education, “boys’ underachievement is driven by masculinity — that is, what boys think it means to be a man is often at odds with succeeding in school. Stated most simply, many boys regard academic disengagement as a sign of their masculinity.” On the flipside, girls’ underperformance on single aptitude tests may very well have to do with their own anxieties over test-taking: As studies have shown, the gap between women’s and men’s math and science test scores disappears, for example, when girls are told that women typically perform better than men on the particular test they’re given. 

Whatever the reason, it seems what we can do to improve everyone’s performance is to try to teach our kids to ignore stereotypes. That means for girls: There is no such thing as “bossy,” and it’s OK to love science. And for boys: liking school and getting good grades is not “girly” or emasculating.

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