Local Tech Wire

DURHAM, N.C. – The underrepresentation of women pursuing high-level careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has been researched and discussed for decades.

Over the last 20 years, males showed a stable or slightly increasing advantage in math and science reasoning, but more females scored higher in verbal reasoning and writing ability tests, according to a new released this week by Duke University.

The study examined 30 years of standardized test data from seventh-graders and found that performance differences between boys and girls have narrowed considerably, but boys still outnumber girls by more than 3-to-1 at extremely high levels of math and scientific reasoning. At the same time, girls slightly outnumber boys at extremely high levels of verbal reasoning and writing ability.

Except for the differences at these highest levels of performance, boys and girls are essentially the same at all other levels of performance.

The findings come from a study performed by Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, which relies on SAT and ACT tests administered to the top 5 percent of seventh-graders to identify gifted students and nurture their intellectual talents.

There were more than 1.6 million such students in this study.

Researchers Jonathan Wai, Megan Cacchio, Martha Putallaz, and Matthew C. Makel focused in particular on gifted seventh-graders who scored 700 or above on the SAT’s math or verbal tests, which is higher than what most high school juniors score.

“Among these students at the very top of the performance curve, the differences in verbal and mathematical performance have maintained a persistent gender gap over the last 15 years,” said Jonathan Wai, a post-doctoral research associate at Duke TIP and lead author on a paper appearing in the July/August issue of Intelligence.

The ratio of seventh-graders scoring 700 or above on SAT math was about 13 boys to 1 girl when it was measured in a landmark study 30 years ago, but that ratio dropped dramatically in the 1990s, according to Wai. Since 1995, the gap has remained steady at about 4-to-1.

The top scores on scientific reasoning, a relatively new section of the ACT that was not included in the earlier study, show a similar ratio of boys to girls.

Wai explained that much has been said and written about the small numbers of women found in top positions in STEM, and there are probably many social and cultural reasons for that gap. However, he added, there do appear to be some real differences in math and science reasoning that may factor into the disparity.

"Even though there are more female role models in math and science now than 30 years ago and sex biases may have eased, we’re still seeing these differences among the most-talented students," said Wai. The current study doesn’t address how those differences might affect a person’s career path directly, but interests and preferences are probably more important than abilities," he said.

"The more important question is whether these differences explain any of the gender differences in career choices and the kinds of behaviors linked to career success, and if so how much,” asked Jacquellyne Eccles, McKeachie-Pintrich, a distinguished professor of psychology and education at the University of Michigan, and director of the Gender & Achievement Research Program.

"This is a very hard question to answer when the social and cultural forces influencing career choices and persistence/engagement are also very strong," she added.

"Our research only serves to inform the debate," Wai concluded. "It’s apparent that there are still differences in ability levels due to gender, even as women have occupied more STEM jobs in the last 30 years. We will continue our research, but for now it seems that ability is still a factor in the equation.”

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