Is the Gender Gap Cultural?

Why do boys so often outperform girls at the top end of mathematics achievement?  This question perplexes academics, is the source of much consternation in hiring, and has caused no end of trouble for those (like Larry Summers) who have waded incautiously into the debate.  As en educator, I want to understand if we as a society are not doing enough to help girls enter math and science.  But I’m not convinced if someone tells me that girls don’t get as many math PhD’s as boys, because it doesn’t address the root cause.  I need to see something about society’s impact on those numbers.

First, some background.  Yes, in school, boys do test higher in math than girls on average, but the difference is usually very small.  If you don’t like relying on tests, girls tend to have higher marks in school.  The key thing to understand is the score distribution: more boys score at a high level, but more boys also score at a low level, bringing the average back to about the same score as girls. Hence, men are overrepresented as top achievers, but also as bottom achievers.  (There is a provocative argument to be made that there are evolutionary reasons for men to be greater risk-takers and to have greater variation in their performance.)

Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence for strong cultural factors that impact girls’ performance.  For example, here’s some evidence for factors that may affect girls in the aggregate (but which, fortunately, are also overcome by many girls):

  • There is clear evidence of stereotype threat.  For example, if the College Board asked for test takers’ gender after the AP calculus exam, rather than before, some 5000 more girls would pass it nationwide.  Surely this stereotype danger affects not just test-taking in the moment, but also impacts students in each classroom, each day, little-by-little.  (Full disclosure: there are also some doubts about the impact of stereotype threat.)
  • Besides, in general, women don’t do as well on tests, and yet tests define a large part of our success and advancement in such subjects.
  • Even when sexism is not overt, we all have mental biases of which we’re not aware.  Just as double-blind auditions significantly boosted women’s admission to symphony orchestras (i.e. having potential candidates audition behind a screen), the same is true of peer review for journal articles.  Again, this effect must surely play out again and again throughout school, with many little encouragements or discouragements building upon one-another.
  • The clearest evidence of social factors affecting girls’ performance might be this study that shows that top-performing girls tend to consistently come from just a few high schools, while top-performing boys come from many different high schools.  In theory, this means that those high schools have figured out how to more fully develop girls’ abilities.
  • Another strong example is this study in which the math anxiety of elementary school teachers (almost all women) strongly affected girls’ math performance and perception of gender roles, but had no impact on boys.
  • Another, similar study that might find causation is this recent one in which it was found that American parents talk to boys age 20-27 months about numbers much more often than they do to girls.
  • Women who are exposed to romantic cues report less interest in mathematics, perhaps a reflection of what society views as “feminine” or desirable in women.
  • This study demonstrates several countries in which girls and boys have the same variance in performance, and also notes that there are more girls on serious IMO teams when measures of gender equity are higher.
  • Another cute example comes from a study that gave spatial puzzles to two tribes, one patrilineal, one matrilineal.  The gender gap disappeared in the matrilineal society.  (Although one has to ask, why was it merely eliminated and not reversed?)

If we search for a core issue, the popular perception of girls’ math ability seems to be a major factor.  Perception of girls’ math ability can explain many of the above bullet points: it is likely the core cause of stereotype threat, it may affect parents’ conversations with children, and it likely impacts the kind of role model that an elementary teacher might be.  If we could just address this one issue, if we could telepathically make it clear to each person in the world that women can be tremendous achievers in math and science, then we might eliminate the gender gap or significantly close it.

Now, I want to be clear: the jury is still out.  Political correctness dictates that it’s much easier to publish a study that explains the gender gap through social rather than biological factors.  The preponderance of evidence points to clear social factors that influence girls’ performance, and those social factors all seem tied to our view of girls’ ability to achieve, but there’s no way to judge what would change if we could correct for social factors.  Women might choose other careers for very legitimate reasons.  There might, yes, be biological differences.  We don’t truly know.

However, this lack of evidence should make no difference to our policies!  If it turns out that the impact of social factors is small, then not very much is lost by making a concerted effort to change the cultural perception of women’s achievement in math and science.  On the other hand, if it turns out that the impact of social factors is large, then we gain tremendous value from repairing cultural perception of women in math and science.  Moreover, it seems likely that the impact of social factors is large.

We should get rid of the cultural factors that prevent girls from making good on their ability, or we should at least strengthen the paths for girls to succeed independent of cultural factors.  Which begs the question: how can we effectively do these things?

Note: Post has been updated to add the Wisconsin study in which some countries have the same variance in performance for both boys and girls.  Post has also been updated to add the meta analysis that calls stereotype threat into question.

Where Does EdTech Fit In?

Let’s face it: educational technology is overhyped.  There’s nothing out there that gives the same education as a great teacher in a great environment.  But education technology is also underhyped!  Nothing else gives the potential for reaching so many people with the full richness of learning.

Yes, there’s a lot of potential in edtech.  But most startups fail, and frankly they fail because they’re often pretty dumb about what education really needs.  If we’re going to improve, we have to stop using technology “because we can” and instead use technology where it actually makes a positive difference.

I’ve long been an EdTech skeptic who believes that great things are possible.  While I am far from an expert on the field, here are my thoughts on the two big categories of EdTech, the failure points they’ve experienced so far, and the potential for excellence.

Technology for the Classroom

AKA “working with teachers,” this is technology designed to aid teachers.  Two favorite examples include Reasoning Mind which offers a computer-based math curriculum using Russian ideas in math education, and the “inverted classroom” model, in which students get content from videos or other sources outside of class and then do problems in class.  (The idea is that you can learn the basics from anyone, but time with a teacher is precious and should be used where the teacher is most valuable.)  I also like BLOSSOMS, videos made by MIT folks where the in-classroom teacher shows part of the video, does an activity with students, shows the next part, does another activity, and finishes up with the rest of the video.  BLOSSOMS is great because it brings experts into the classroom while working well with the classroom structure.

Why do these fail?  It depends on the tech.  Sometimes, the big innovation is trying to give teachers access to more data so that they can diagnose what their students don’t understand and help them—these fail because entering the data is too clunky, and takes too much time.  Sometimes the innovation is giving the teachers better ways to present material—although the SMART board has succeeded, most other technologies fail when the complexity of creating lesson plans goes up.  I’ve seen tech based on helping teachers decide which student to call on (often not enough benefit for time/cost), tech based on giving all students iPads (not enough educational material to make it worthwhile, and too distracting), and so forth.  Everyone has their idea for what teachers really need to become more effective, and they’re usually wrong.  That’s not entirely true—sometimes the innovators are right, but they haven’t taken the time to align to standards, nor have they made it easy for teachers to find and use their resources.

What are the opportunities?  Some innovations have potential for greater efficiency in classroom time (such as the inverted classroom), and technology should be able to help here.  Technology could also allow for better in-class problems customized to each student (adapting to their prior work) or better assessments.  We’ll eventually find a way to get teachers better data about their students.  Finally, people keep talking about well-designed interactive apps that would allow students to explore material in a non-linear fashion or to do projects where students analyze real-world data.  Although nothing seems to have taken hold just yet, it’s a tremendous opportunity.

Technology for Outside the Classroom

This is designed to skip the in-person component altogether, optimized for self-paced study or for online classrooms.  The motivating forces tend to be either “make education accessible to everyone” or “take the work of the best teachers, distill it, and scale it.”  Favorite examples include Khan Academy (even though I think there’s lots of room for improvement) and Art of Problem Solving.  There are also tons of online schools of various sorts.

Why do these fail?  Often, these technologies don’t account for how much less engaging it is when you’re not in front of a real person.  (That’s why live sporting events and live plays are still popular.)  They also don’t account for our short attention spans.  And, most critically, they don’t account for the importance of being around other learners, part of a community that spurs you to greater learning.

What are the opportunities?  The trend towards adaptive learning is a big plus here, although the give-and-take of adaptive multiple-choice questions remains less compelling than real human interaction.  For very motivated learners or those with someone (e.g. a parent) watching over them, online schools may be compelling.  There’s also an opportunity in short, awesome online content that students can watch, share on Facebook, etc., and then perhaps follow up on in greater depth.  However, I think the real future is in social networking, where students can watch a video and chat live as the video plays, or share questions with a small group of trusted online friends who can help them through the material.  As near as I can tell, that’s the only hope for a real online community of learning that will keep students learning.

The problem with education technology is that there’s a lot of “cool stuff” out there that is genuinely very cool—but it just doesn’t actually educate that well.  I think we’ll get there eventually, as more collaborations evolve between knowledgeable educators and really awesome tech innovators.  I’ll even share some of my own ideas in a future post, places I think there’s space for real innovation.

Meanwhile, as an educator, I’m not holding my breath.  I’m happy to adopt things that come around that will really make a big difference, but until they do, don’t expect me (or anyone else) to jump on your bandwagon!