The University Record, April 22, 2002

Study: Girls lack interest in math

By Judy Steeh
News and Information Services

Contrary to widely held belief, girls are not under-performing in middle school and high school math; girls’ and boys’ achievement in math classes is virtually the same. But girls seem to have less interest in the subject, and this may be a contributing factor to the dearth of women in math-related occupations, particularly jobs in information technology, says U-M researcher Pamela Davis-Kean.

“We shouldn’t be surprised that both women and men choose careers based not just on performance and ability, but also on their beliefs about and interest in those occupations,” Davis-Kean said.

Davis-Kean and co-authors Jacquelynne Eccles (U-M) and Miriam Linver (Columbia University) presented their research in a paper titled “Influences of Gender on Academic Achievement” at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence. Their findings are based on a data set collected over 17 years as part of the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions (MSALT). MSALT followed some 1,700 southeastern Michigan students from sixth- through 12th-grade and beyond, looking at a wide variety of interests, motivation and achievement-related self-concepts.

When the researchers analyzed data for students by track (honors/college and regular/basic) and gender, they discovered that, overall, young women had slightly higher grades than young men within each group; grades for both girls and boys generally declined throughout high school. Interest in math generally declined for all groups through high school, but girls in the honors/college track started out lower in eighth-grade than boys in the honors/college track, and their interest continued to decline even through the 12th-grade while the boys’ interest stabilized across high school.

The next step of the project will look at what the students did after high school—whether they went to college, what they studied there, what careers they entered. “We already know that while at least half the students entering medical and law school are women, engineering schools are having trouble attracting and retaining talented young women,” Davis-Kean said. “The IT industry is aware it’s missing out on a large pool of potentially valuable employees. The next question to ask, of course, is what we can and should be doing to maintain and perhaps even increase interest in math.”

The research paper was presented in a larger session titled “The Longitudinal Impact of Gender on Academic Outcomes: Does Gender Really Matter?” While the Michigan study showed no differences in math performance between the genders, other papers demonstrate that there are significant differences in reading between girls and boys, favoring girls. “This is a troublesome problem that educators will almost certainly have to address in the near future,” Davis-Kean said.