STEM and the gender gap: Why girls are "not good" at math

President Trump signed two bills in February 2017, aiming to boost the number of women in STEM. He said, “Currently, only one in every four women who gets a STEM degree is working in a STEM job, which is not fair.” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics when taught and applied in an interdisciplinary approach are collectively referred to as STEM.)

United Nations has designated February 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science “to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” All this is part of a widespread effort, including societal shifts, political activism, governmental initiatives, and other promising steps by private groups, to get more females in these fields that have been male-dominated for more years than one can count. Read this post to look at the world championing the cause of women in STEM.

By 2018, 71% of the jobs will require STEM skills. In 2013, only 26% of the computing professionals and 12% of the engineers were women. In every region of the world, women are underrepresented in R&D, with an average of just 28%, says UNESCO. European countries are struggling with gender equality and limited access to employment issues. The situation is pretty much the same or worse in developing nations. If you want to look at some surprising statistics about women in tech, go here.

Socioeconomic obstacles to overcome

Many women have to fight stereotype threats; often, the battle is within. Barring innate competence or abilities in math, culture seems to have a lot to answer for when you look at the mathematical “performance gap.”

Here’s what the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said based on its international study on gender equality in schools: “What emerges from these analyses is particularly worrying. Even many high-achieving girls have low levels of confidence in their ability to solve science and mathematics problems and express high levels of anxiety towards mathematics.”

Girls seem to be faring poorly frequently because of low expectations of teachers and family, who seem to be perpetuating the girls aren’t good at math myth. Vulnerable, these girls report low self-confidence. Teachers, perhaps unwittingly, underrate the math skills of their girl students.

The OECD added: “This gender difference in the ability to think like a scientist may be related to students’ self-confidence. When students are more self-confident, they give themselves the freedom to fail, to engage in the trial-and-error processes that are fundamental to acquiring knowledge in mathematics and science.”

Eradicating centuries of cultural conditioning isn’t easy. But we have to start sometime.

No point in blaming men alone

Skewed perceptions affect hiring decisions. Research shows that employers are twice as likely to hire a man for a math job; it didn’t matter whether the person doing the hiring was man or woman. Women are underestimating themselves, and apparently, they are letting the unconscious bias pull down other women as well.

Unfortunately, some girls also find math boring.

Girls believing that they are ‘simply not good at math’ and giving up easily are not helping. Telling them it is OK to fail but letting them know persistence and confidence are not to be shrugged off go a long way toward the cause.

UNESCO’s research shows that females may be more anxious about STEM subjects. Explaining the gender gap in math test scores: The role of competition gives you another perspective about gender difference in mathematical skills.

Not a good situation this…

Media and mothers have a part to play

Have you noticed how many TV shows and movies portray smart women as geeky and awkward and the beautiful ones as slow and ‘stupid’? Girls often choose not to be the ‘odd one’ out and downplay their talent. They find reasons to not try.

Even toys—girls get dolls, boys get meccano. No point in wondering why we don’t have enough engineers, you know. Some mothers keep telling their children how they should go to the dads to solve a math problem and empathizing with their daughters who aren’t doing well at math. This needs to stop. You are unknowingly reinforcing a negative stereotype. Stop setting lower expectations and start connecting with them in positive ways.

Myth or reality

The myth that women are born disadvantaged as far as math skills are concerned have been debunked by enough research studies. Equal aptitude skills, that’s what data shows. ..Girls are not destined to do badly in math.

Look at the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data gleaned from 15-year-olds in 65 countries.


Seems like it is all about perception, doesn’t it?

Time's a-wastin'

“We have been discussing the issues of STEM careers and gender imbalance for too long! It is now time to take action, as other nations have done. A coalition of stakeholders from government, industry and education needs to come together as a matter of urgency to decide on a course of action,” said Professor Brian MacCraith, DCU President and Chair of National Review of STEM Education 2015.

That’s exactly what companies such as HackerEarth are trying to do. As part of its initiative to empower women in tech and encourage women developers world over, the company is conducting an International Women’s Hackathon 2017 on Women’s day. For women readers who would like to give it a shot, go here.


About the Author

Raghu Mohan
Raghu is an engineering grad handles Marketing at HackerEarth. Prior to this, he was an editor at When he’s not working, you can find him at the nearest music shop having a jam session.