According to new research by Florida State University researchers, math abilities aren't the reason girls aren't making their way into the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, despite society's long-held beliefs that men simply have stronger math-related abilities. Instead, it turns out, young girls face a "confidence gap" in STEM subjects, often rating their math abilities lower than boys do, despite no discernible difference between the two genders' proficiency.
The FSU researchers' study, which was published in Frontiers in Psychology last week, found that when they asked 4,450 10th grade boys and girls — who were matched up by mathematic scores — how confident they were in their math abilities, girls fell woefully behind their male counterparts. Despite having equal abilities, boys rated their math abilities 27 percent higher, on average, than girls did. They also led girls by about 11 percent when it came to having a growth mindset — and those two numbers, together, help explain why we see such a gender disparity when it comes to STEM jobs.
"When we hold mathematics ability test scores constant, effectively taking it out of the equation, we see boys still rate their ability higher, and girls rate their ability lower," Lara Perez-Felkner, the study's lead author, told ScienceDaily. She continued:
That's important because those confidence levels influence the math and science courses students choose later in high school. It influences whether they choose colleges that are strong in certain science majors. It also influences the majors they intend to pursue and the majors they actually declare and continue on with in degrees and potential careers.
That's both bad news and good news at once: It means girls' confidence levels are holding them back from STEM careers from early on, but it also means there are ways that parents and educators can start to close that confidence gap.
They can start by helping girls nurture a growth mindset, or the mindset that intelligence is not fixed (and can instead be developed through hard work). In their paper, the FSU researchers argued that boys are taught to chase challenges, while girls are more often socialized to focus on achieving perfection. While young, girls need to learn that risking failure is a good thing and a growth opportunity, rather than something to be feared and avoided.
On top of that, girls face many media messages that tell them boys — not girls — excel in science and math. According to Reuters, research has shown that stereotypes do indeed impact girls' abilities, and when reminded that "boys do better at math," girls' math skills plummet. Correct those stereotypes when you hear them out in the world, and introduce young girls to women who are kicking butt and taking names in STEM fields in order to help combat those often-heard (and incorrect) stereotypes.
According to Florida State University News, girls also benefit from increased access to advanced science and math courses or camps, especially in high school and early post-secondary. If your daughter's school doesn't offer access to that, encourage her to pursue an opportunity at a STEM camp for the summer or find local opportunities for her to take more courses.
The confidence gap has held girls back from enjoying rewarding (and profitable!) careers in STEM for too long — but luckily, there are tangible ways for parents and educators to change that for the next generation of girls. Let's start by pointing them towards solid role models, watching what we say about girls' and boys' abilities, and offering up enough opportunities to get involved in interesting STEM courses.