In many cases, girls outperform boys in most subjects in early grades. But according to a new study from Stanford, boys outperform girls in math in affluent, suburban districts. Researchers believe that traditional gender roles, expectations, and even stereotypical gender-based activities (boys in math, girls in dance classes) could be the reason for the gap.
In Manchester, boys are about 1.6 months ahead of girls in math, while girls are about 7 months ahead in English. In Nashua, boys are about 2.5 months ahead in math and girls are 7.2 months ahead in English, according to the study.
The gender achievement gap in math reflects a paradox of high-earning parents. They are more likely to say they hold egalitarian views about gender roles. But they are also more likely to act in traditional ways – father as breadwinner, mother as caregiver.
The gap was largest in school districts in which men earned a lot, had high levels of education, and were likely to work in business or science. Women in such districts earned significantly less. Children might absorb the message that sons should grow up to work in high-earning, math-based jobs.
High-income parents spend more time and money on their children, and invest in more stereotypical activities, researchers said, enrolling their daughters in ballet and their sons in engineering.
There is also a theory that high-earning families invest more in sons, because men in this socioeconomic group earn more than women, while low-earning families invest more in daughters, because working-class women have more job opportunities than men.
In the districts in which boys do better than girls in math, they also have a smaller gender gap in language arts – so it might be that they get more encouragement to do well in school in general. Boys’ grades, behavior and future earnings seem to be more influenced by the circumstances in which they grow up, research has found.
“Both girls and boys benefit from being in more academic and more resource-rich environments,” said Thomas DiPrete, a sociologist at Columbia who has studied gender and educational performance. “It’s just that boys benefit more.”
When boys think of academic achievement as desirable and tied to their future success, they do better. Boys who have fathers who are involved in their lives, and who are highly educated with white-collar jobs, are more likely to receive this message, according to research by Mr. DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann, a sociologist at Ohio State.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, in districts that are mostly black, less affluent and in the South, girls do better than boys in math. Recent research has found that black boys in particular struggle in the face of poverty and racism. Black and Latino boys and those in poor neighborhoods often get the message that doing well in school is not manly, a variety of research has found.
“We live in a society where there’s multiple models of successful masculinity,” Mr. DiPrete said. “One depends for its position on education, and the other doesn’t. It comes from physical strength.”
Although well-off districts encourage boys in math, they don’t seem to encourage girls in the same way. Researchers say it probably has to do with deeply ingrained stereotypes that boys are better at math.
Teachers often underestimate girls’ math abilities, according to research by Sarah Lubienski of Indiana University and Joseph Cimpian of New York University, who also found the gender gap in math was largest for students from high-income families. They found that as girls move through elementary school, they lose confidence in their math skills – more than they lose interest or achievement…
One way to boost achievement in math, researchers say, is to avoid mention of innate skill and stress that math can be learned. Another is to expose children to adults with different areas of expertise, and offer a wide variety of activities and books. Gaps are smaller when extracurricular activities are less dominated by one gender.
Instilling children early with motivation and confidence to do well in school is crucial, researchers say. When students reach high school and have more choice in the classes they take, the gender gaps in achievement grow even larger.