Gender Equity

Boys Favor, Show More Confidence in Math over Girls

A national survey of high schoolers showed that even among the top students, boys both favored and had greater confidence in math classes than girls.

The national survey of 16- to 18-year-olds was undertaken by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), among 1,253 students in grades 11 and 12. All were participants in this year's MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, a yearly online math modeling contest organized by SIAM that demonstrates the importance of math in everyday life. The makeup of survey respondents was about 60 percent male and 40 percent female, similar to the gender breakdown of the M3 Challenge itself.

Three-quarters of male students (76 percent) described their participation in math and science class as "frequent and confident." Fifty-eight percent of female respondents said the same. Another 28 percent of female students referred to their math and science class participation as "frequent but questioning," compared to 12 percent of males who used that description.

That difference in confidence showed up in leadership decisions too. When it came to choosing a captain for their M3 Challenge team, seven in 10 mixed-gender teams (69 percent) chose a male leader.

Similar shares of both genders (39 percent) reported being "naturally good" at math and a third credited a teacher for inspiring their interest.

Most of the survey participants (89 percent of males and 76 percent of females) said STEM subjects were their academic favorite. However, whereas 67 percent of females identified them as their strongest subjects, 85 percent of males did.

Also, 83 percent of males reported that they planned to pursue STEM fields in college, compared to 69 percent of females.

How would these STEM virtuosos recommend getting more students interested in math and science education and careers? "Good teachers" were number one, chosen by 70 percent of respondents. Having a better understanding of real-world applications and value of STEM (57 percent) was second. Gaining a better understanding of the diversity of STEM-related career opportunities came in third (45 percent). And being given more opportunities to personally experience STEM applications in practice in the workplace was fourth (44 percent).

In terms of math assessments, more male students than female students preferred open-ended questions (63 percent versus 52 percent); females showed a bigger preference for multiple-choice questions (48 percent versus 37 percent). According to the survey results, those who favored multiple-choice questions said those seemed "less daunting" because they could use the process of elimination, and they preferred black-and-white answers with no gray areas. Those who designated a partiality for open-ended math questions noted that they liked having "no fixed answer" and tackling a problem that could be solved in different ways; also, they said they found it easier to use their math thinking skills with open-ended questions.

"While there are not huge differences in male and female views on math and STEM, the survey shows there is still a marked gender difference when it comes to subject preferences and how students view their own strengths, as well as confidence levels in math class," said Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge program director at SIAM, in a statement.

The M3 Challenge draws thousands of high school juniors and seniors who commit 14 consecutive hours on a designated weekend in February/March to devise a solution to a real-world problem using mathematical modeling. This year's competition drew 760 submissions. The challenge asked students to use math modeling to provide recommendations and solutions for the trucking industry's turnover from diesel to electric, with help from industry association North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE).

Six teams' solutions were chosen as finalists; three other teams were designated as technical computing finalists. Their papers were evaluated by a national panel of PhD-level mathematicians. Traditionally, the final judging takes place in New York City in April. This year, that in-person event was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, so judging was handled virtually.

A team of five high schoolers from Pine View School in Osprey, FL took home the top prize of $20,000 in college scholarships. A second team from Pine View took a $5,000 scholarship prize. A total of $107,500 was up for grabs, divided among the finalist teams and top performers nationally.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.