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  • If You Keep Thinking Boys Are Better In Math Than Girls, It Will Likely Come True

    A study reveals 'boy-biased' homes contribute to girls' lower scores in math.
    by Dahl D. Bennett .
If You Keep Thinking Boys Are Better In Math Than Girls, It Will Likely Come True
PHOTO BY iStock
  • “Boys are better wired at math than girls.” How many times have we heard this — and perhaps, even accepted statements like these as a fact. One study found out that gender gap in math-heavy fields is partly the result of gender biases that begin in the home and parental attitudes towards traditional gender roles.

    The study reveals that ‘boy-biased’ homes contribute to girls’ lower performance in math. “Home is an obvious place to look, but nobody has done a systematic study looking at whether parents’ beliefs and preferences regarding the role women should have in society explain kids’ achievement gaps,” says Paola Sapienza in an article published in Kellog Insight

    Sapienza, a professor of finance at Kellogg, is one of the four researchers that conducted the ‘first large-scale study that connects how parental beliefs may affect children’s outcome.’ Using data from the Florida Departments of Health and Education that merged 1.6 million birth records of children born between 1994-2003, the researchers examined whether a family’s attitude toward boys and girls could impact their daughters’ performance in math.

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    Girls scored lower in math in “boy-biased” homes

    First, they used data on a family’s observed fertility choices to determine which families were likely biased toward having boys. Second, they tried to find a strong relationship between maternal attitudes toward gender roles and girls’ performance.

    The first analysis revealed girls raised in “boy-biased” homes scored lower on math tests between 3rd and 10th grade compared to girls who were not subject to such biases at home. “That difference is equivalent to one-quarter of the math performance gap between children whose mothers finished high school and those whose mothers dropped out,” the study revealed. 

    The second analysis showed that “daughters performed worse when their families were apparently biased toward boys.” In contrast, when the researchers ran their investigation in “girl-biased” families to see if boys suffered in their math performance — they observed no such effect.

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    Traditional gender roles and lower math performance 

    The study also revealed that another contributing factor to lower math performances among girls is the “favored traditional gender roles” among mothers. The more mothers favored traditional gender roles, the worse their school-aged daughters performed on a math test.  

    According to the study, daughters of mothers whose preference for traditional gender roles was one standard deviation above the mean had scored 3% lower. Boys’ math performance, meanwhile, was unaffected by their mothers’ gender-role attitudes.

    The researchers also examined how much the women’s sons and daughters agreed with statements like, “Girls and boys should be treated the same in school,” and “A girl should not let a boy know she is smarter than he is.”

    They confirmed a strong relationship between the views of mothers about traditional gender roles and the views of their children — a relationship that only strengthened as children entered adolescence.
    While the study shows that parental attitudes are a factor in the gender gap in fields like STEM, it noted that “there is unlikely to be a single source.”

    Sapienza sums it by saying that there is not a” clear policy recommendation,” but that there is a reminder we all have biases. “Even with all the love you can imagine, we may bring home certain types of biases,” she tells Kellog Insight.

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