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Are female teachers unintentionally steering girls away from STEM?

Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers write, "Female teachers may be unwittingly harming the young girls they teach because of their unconscious gender bias and their own anxiety about math. Could the dearth of women in STEM jobs be due in part to this problem?

Even though reams of evidence show that girls perform as well as boys when it comes to math aptitude, the bias against girls persists, and starts as early as kindergarten. And, too often, teachers who only want the best for girls are a large part of the problem.

A 2015 study report by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which was conducted in Israel, shows how teachers’ “unconscious gender bias” affects even such seemingly objective behavior as scoring math exams.

Three groups of Israeli students were followed from sixth grade through the end of high school. They were given two exams that were each graded by different female instructors — some who knew the students’ identities, and some who did not.

The students were tested in English, Hebrew and math. In the first two subjects, boys and girls scored identically, regardless of who did the scoring. Math, however, was a different story.

When the kids were graded by people who did not know their names, the girls outperformed the boys. But when the graders were teachers who knew the sex of the students, boys outscored the girls. The teachers overestimated the boys’ abilities and underestimated those of the girls.

Over time, this bias affected the students’ attitudes toward math. Case in point: In high school, the boys were more likely to enroll in high-level math courses. In both junior high and high school, boys from this study, encouraged through higher test scores, did significantly better on national exams than their female classmates.

This is hardly an isolated finding. Even after all the special programs to encourage girls in math, all the prizes and all the contests, girls often do not pursue math and science even when they are good at it. One survey of 2,213 college seniors found that among women and men who were taking both physics and calculus, the proportion of men choosing a career in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) was much greater than the proportion of women doing the same. So, girls who are taking and excelling in courses that will supposedly allow them to enter high-paying STEM careers are still not choosing those fields.


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