Guest column: Boys are every bit as talented at math as girls
CHICAGO — How do we get more women into the science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) fields?
In 2015, women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs, but they were employed in only 24 percent of STEM positions, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. And it’s not due to a straightforward education gap – women constitute slightly more than half of all college-educated workers, but only about 25 percent of college-educated STEM employees.
This is worrisome for two reasons. First, the technology that emerges from STEM field work is rapidly shaping our lives, and it’s in danger of being biased against anyone who isn’t white and male because they are the ones mostly working on artificial intelligence, facial recognition and predictive algorithms right now.
Second, we can’t let women miss out on the high-paying jobs of tomorrow, which will almost certainly depend more and more on expertise in STEM-related academic disciplines.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 93 out of 100 STEM occupations paid wages above the national average in 2015. And the STEM jobs projected to grow fastest by 2024 are those for people in mathematical science occupations.
So how can we start addressing the disparities threatening to follow women straight into the future?
Adjusting how we talk about women and math could help.
For some time now, parents and educators have been trying to dispel the myth that girls aren’t as good at math as boys by using what they believed was supportive language: “Girls are as good at math as boys.”
Unfortunately, this phrasing may ultimately have the opposite effect. That’s because it establishes boys as the reference point, implying that their ability is more typical and distinguished, according to a recent paper from Stanford University researchers Eleanor K. Chestnut and Ellen M. Markman that was published in the journal Cognitive Science.
For instance, on a surface level, the statements “zebras are like horses” and “horses are like zebras” are logically identical. But in our everyday language, we wouldn’t usually say “horses are like zebras” because, at least in the U.S., horses are a far more prototypical animal and, thus, more apt as a reference point.
Another example: “The bicycle is near the building” and “the building is near the bicycle.” Again, within the rules of formal logic, these statements are on par with each other. However, we’re likelier to say the former because a bicycle is a smaller, more easily movable object than a building.
Markman and Chestnut asked 650 English-speaking, U.S. adults to read subtle variations of a paragraph that summarized research showing a lack of gender differences in math skills. They then asked the participants which gender they thought was more naturally skilled at math.
Of the participants who read “girls are as good as boys at math,” 71 percent said boys have more natural math ability. But only 32 percent of participants said the same after reading a text that contained “boys are as good as girls at math.”
And when researchers explicitly asked participants if they thought the sentence “girls are as good as boys at math” was biased in any way, people rated the statement as unbiased, illustrating how seemingly equal statements can suggest inequality without listeners even realizing it.
“Considering that several fields with large gender gaps like computer science and physics value raw talent, statements that imply that boys are naturally more talented could be contributing to women’s underrepresentation,” Chestnut said in a Stanford press release. “Adults, especially parents and teachers, should thus try to avoid consistently framing one gender as the standard for the other.”
Language is a sophisticated set of habits that we can change at will. Not easily, of course, but follow these two rules to put the trajectory of women in STEM professions on better footing:
First, always tell all children (and especially girls) they can be good at math. Previous Stanford University School of Medicine research has found explicit correlations between a positive attitude toward the subject and actual math achievement.
Second, when you make comparisons, try putting women in the benchmark position. Saying “boys are every bit as talented at math as girls” is not only truthful, but potentially empowering.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.