Big Surprise! Gender Gap in Physics (and Math) Persists

No matter how hard feminist “scholars” try to explain away the gender gap in high level math and physics aptitude, the underlying reality will not go away.

In a new synthesis of past work, researchers found that women consistently score lower than men on common assessments of conceptual understanding of physics. However, when examining the factors that may account for these differences (such as student background and test-taking strategies), no clear pattern emerged. Thus, despite previous claims that the causes of this gender gap have been pinpointed, the problem remains unsolved and poorly understood. This has critical importance for science education reform.

Many changes have been made in college science instruction in the past decades. Numerous classrooms have shifted from a traditional lecture presentation to more interactive formats that aim to engage students in building their own knowledge _NewsWise

Image Credit: Percentage Female in Various Fields

Sex differences at the high end of mathematical ability lead inevitably to a large preponderance of males working in advanced physics, engineering, mathematics, computer sciences, physical chemistry, and other more difficult math-dependent fields.

More from La Griffe on the continuing gender gap in mathematics.

No matter how many $billions are spent to change methods of science instruction, or to increase science outreach for girls, if the biological reality underlying gender differences persists, the real world achievement differences will also persist.

In US university science, women are well represented in psychology and biology, but they tend to come up short in the more math-dependent fields such as physics. Even when women go into engineering or computer science, they often choose to go into softer areas of the field such as “environmental engineering,” “computer graphics design,” fields requiring less math and more intuition.

From a previously published article at the original Al Fin blog:
So, why are males superior at math? Let’s be more specific, since the reality is a bit mixed:

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 [arithmetic _ ed.] skills. Performance in mathematical reasoning and geometry shows the greatest difference (Fennema, Sowder, & Carpenter, 1999). _Education

In fact, recent research shows that males begin to take a qualitatively different approach to math thinking from an early age:

In a University of Missouri study, girls and boys started grade school with different approaches to solving arithmetic problems, with girls favoring a slow and accurate approach and boys a faster but more error prone approach. Girls’ approach gave them an early advantage, but by the end of sixth grade boys had surpassed the girls….

“Developing mathematical skill may be part ‘practice makes perfect’ and part ‘perfect makes practice,’” Bailey said. “Attempting more answers from memory gives risk-takers more practice, which may eventually lead to improvements in accuracy. It also is possible that children who are skilled at certain strategies are more likely to use them and therefore acquire more practice.” _MU News

The greater boldness exhibited by boys in math class is likely a testosterone effect, which is exhibited in so many other behavioural differences between males and females in childhood, adolescence, and early to middle adulthood.

The male superiority in spacial skills tasks and advanced math reasoning is likely to derive from far more subtle changes in the brain than those that lead to greater male boldness. But those more subtle changes are also largely due to testosterone effect.

These brain changes occur over time — slowly in childhood, and at a faster rate in adolescence. All levels of brain activity — from gene expression to physiological parameters to brain structure to cognitive function — are involved.

Feminist academics tend to compare male : female math skills in early childhood or very early in adolescence — before many of the testosterone-instigated brain changes have taken place in mid to late adolescence. At the same time, many feminist-inspired studies focus upon comparisons of basic arithmetic skills — thus failing to detect the male advantages in spatial skills and in advanced mathematical reasoning. It is like cherry-picking, except done in the study-design phase.

Fortunately, better tools for detecting brain activity and differences at all levels — from gene expression to fine brain structure to the neurological correlates of cognition — are being developed.

A fascinating new brain imager which combines MEG (magnetoencephalography) with MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) will allow an unprecedented degree of simultaneous spatial and temporal imaging of brain structure and activity.

Functional brain imaging has already developed to the point where it can be used as an objective, culture-free test for cognitive function and speed. It is only a matter of time before such crude objective measures of cognition can be fine-tuned to look at distinct types of cognition, including mathematical and spatial reasoning.

When it comes to brain, cognition, and behaviour, hormones have consequences. The sooner human academics can grow beyond their political correctness to look at these issues objectively and honestly, the sooner we can find ways for all of us to move ahead.

This entry was posted in Cognition, Human Brain, Learning Theory, Sex Differences, Testosterone and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Big Surprise! Gender Gap in Physics (and Math) Persists

  1. Stephen says:

    I hope in time feminists will not start to agitate for testosterone injections for girls or something likewise damaging and disturbing in order to make their mad egalitarian fantasies actually come to life. It was understood by the 19th century that creating castrati for great music was a very cruel injustice and I hope feminists don’t try to physiologically screw up girls in order to get their way.

  2. Dan Kurt says:

    Don’t worry about the feminists as they talk too much and eventually will be ignored by most people. Recall the Hindu saying: humans were granted 20 units of speech. Women took 19 of them and Men have been happy with one.

    Dan Kurt

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