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Op-Ed: An Assault to Closing the Gender Gap in STEM

Op-Ed: An Assault to Closing the Gender Gap in STEM

American Enterprise Institute scholar and professor of economics and finance Mark Perry recently wrote an article for AEI’s site this year titled "2016 SAT test results confirm pattern that’s persisted for 45 years — high school boys are better at math than girls."

Because Perry publishes the same version of this article on an annual basis after SAT results are announced (see: October 2015), I believe it should be addressed both because it’s dangerous and because it blatantly ignores studies that raise doubt.

The matter-of-fact title seems innocent in itself, but is actually a veil for an article that will use SAT data to prove that boys possess an innate ability to be better at math than girls, especially higher-end math. In other words, the more complicated the math problem, the more likely a boy is to get it.

Assuming that this must be the only explanation for boy’s out-performance of girls on annual SAT tests, Perry goes so far as to say that efforts to close the gender gap in STEM are useless and, essentially, a waste of time.

"If there are some inherent gender differences for mathematical ability, as the huge and persistent gender differences for the math SAT test suggests, closing the STEM gender degree and job gaps may be a futile attempt in socially engineering an unnatural and unachievable outcome,” Perry writes at the conclusion of his piece.

When confronted by a commenter similarly alarmed over his thought process on his 2015 post, Perry specified on exactly what kinds of efforts to close the STEM gender gap he disagrees with.

"To the extent that there is funding, programs, any efforts to equalize gender outcomes in engineering and computer science degrees/careers, or in mathematics/physics/engineering departments at universities, I would generally oppose those efforts at trying to socially engineer outcomes that may not be achievable or desirable,” he said.

He also elaborated a little more about the root of his argument:

"I think it’s useful and wise to stop the nonsense about 'women and men being perfectly equal on all dimensions and by every measure of comparison.’ Let’s just accept it as a biological fact that men and women are different in many ways, including the way their brains operate, and accept the fact that male math aptitude might be higher on average (and certainly in the extreme) than female math aptitude.”

(This year, commenters again expressed outrage with his post but this time he declined to reply.)

While there is plenty of room in this world for differing opinions, presenting an issue in such a matter-of-fact manner without acknowledging the wide range of studies counter to his belief is plain wrong, not to mention contributes directly to the phenomenon he writes about.

Perry would have been wise to read this study from Northwestern University researchers which finds that "the gender gap in math scores disappears in countries with a more gender-equal culture.” 

Or this one from the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology and Committee on Education, which found that female teachers’ math anxiety directly affects girls’ math achievement. Given that 90 percent of all early elementary school teachers at the time of the study were female, one can clearly see a cyclical pattern that adds suspicion to the “gender superiority” claim. 

More recently, a study found that improving women’s math confidence is directly related to their achievement in math.

According to researchers Jessica Ellis, Bailey K. Fosdick and Chris Rasmussen, women are 1.5 times more likely to leave the STEM pipeline after calculus than men and a lack of confidence in their abilities to tackle advanced math could be to blame.

"When comparing women and men with above-average mathematical abilities and preparedness, we find women start and end the term with significantly lower mathematical confidence than men. This suggests a lack of mathematical confidence, rather than a lack of mathematically ability, may be responsible for the high departure rate of women,” the paper says.

The researchers found that if women "persisted in STEM at the same rate as men starting in Calculus I, the number of women entering the STEM workforce would increase by 75%.”

In other words, Mark Perry, using funding, programs or other efforts to build K-12 programs that instill confidence in women isn’t pointless. Because maybe one day, these girls will grow up to be the engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists they are capable of being, read your annual post, and laugh.

Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor

9/30/2016

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