Chapter Six: Gender Differences in STEM Proficiency

One theme of Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto that has consistently drawn my attention is that of gender misperceptions and stereotypes, and chapter six does not disappoint in the development of this thread. When Vice President Iglesias is incapable of preparing dinner from raw ingredients, he automatically assumes Roxanne, the only woman in the house, will know how to cook. Even though that particular woman didn’t know how to cook, it was still the two girl terrorists and the most “feminine” males who did the cooking. However, one thing is apparent despite this obvious statement on gender stereotypes: cooking is a very practical skill.

Another aspect of gender portrayal that caught my attention was the teaching dynamic between Gen and Carmen. Carmen desires more than anything to learn how to read and write in Spanish and English, yet completely lacks confidence. This seems a practical, though less so than cooking, skill for Carmen. Both of these situations call into question the practicality of education of different skills, and how this differs based on gender and socioeconomic status. The way Gen decided to teach her, and Mr. Hosokawa for that matter, language with a few words at a time was interesting to me as well.

Lately, partly due to the research of other classmates, I have become interested in education from a gender perspective. While Bel Canto depicts traditional language literacy development, through my beginning searches for sources I became more interested in mathematical literacy acquirement. Are males really more proficient in STEM fields? If so, why is this? Is there more of a biological reason for this, or is it a learned phenomenon? Why does it matter?

Interestingly enough, upon reading the first page of the first article I discovered, I found one answer to the last question I posed. In a meta-analysis of educational progress reports on science and math for both genders, the authors described one implication for a lack of female participation in the STEM fields in the US. It is one concern that the US is falling behind in technology development and research, which also has economic repercussions, as the population of students attending schools of higher education has a greater percentage of female students. These female students are statistically less likely to be training for careers in math and science (Andrews et al., p. 1).

In this meta-analysis, small mean differences between male and female students in math and science aptitude and achievement were found (Andrews et al., p. 8). However, there was more variation in performance among male students. One aspect of this is that the ratio of high-achieving males to females in math and science was more than 2:1 (Andrews et al., p. 10). When the researchers of this study compared grade levels (fifth, eighth, and twelfth), they found that the gender differences were more pronounced as the students aged. This supports biological theories that sex hormones disadvantage female students that hit around puberty (Andrews et al., p. 9).

Another trend in this meta-analysis data suggests that there was really no significant change over the eleven years of data for which they conducted the analysis. This could go against social theories that maintain that as gender roles change in society, so will STEM involvement by gender (Andrews et al., p. 9). One interesting aspect of the science comparison is that there was little to no difference in proficiency of males and females in life sciences, such as biology, rather than physical or earth and space sciences. This could suggest a difference in “patterns of interest and motivation toward people-oriented fields,” “rather than indicating any inherent lack of ability” (Andrews et al., p. 10).

In fact, in one study conducted by Anna-Lena Dicke and her associates, differences in levels of motivational facets in regard to learning math were found between the genders. It is apparent from their survey results that girls place less intrinsic value on math. Females generally consider math less important for their general future or their future careers (Dicke et al., p. 10). Now the question remains: why do women gravitate toward careers that are not math-based.

Females who took the survey administered by Dicke and her colleagues also associate greater “emotional cost and effort” with learning math (Dicke et al., p. 10). This data correlates with another study conducted by Marissa Swaim Griggs and her associates that surveyed students to gauge relationships between anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance in math and science for fifth graders. When anxiety was controlled, boys and girls generally believed themselves equally efficacious toward math and science (Grigg et al., p. 10). However, girls are often more anxious than boys regarding math and science.

The Griggs study particularly considered responsive classrooms (RC) that are generally more interactive and allow students some choice in the learning. In these RC classrooms children were more likely to consider themselves more able to be successful in science, which makes them more likely to be truly successful (Griggs et al., p. 10). One possibility for this is that students are able to learn along a path of their own interests with science, which is less true of math. So can classroom environment and curriculum have an effect on students’ abilities to learn math and science?

In the meta-analysis referenced previously, the authors reference other studies and discuss some possible psychosocial parent and teacher behaviors that could influence gender stereotyping in math and science. For instance, it has been shown that boys generally report being involved in more extracurricular activities or playing with more toys that encourage quantitative, spatial thinking, which improves science and math skills (Andrews et al., p. 10). In addition, parents are recorded as explaining mathematical and scientific ideas to boys more often than girls. There is evidence that parents also often believe that boys are more intelligent than girls, including in math and science subjects (Andrews et al., p. 10).

It seems that many classroom environments may not be conducive to developing female proficiency in math, as teachers are more likely to have more direct contact with male students. Similarly, in science classes, it has been demonstrated that teachers are often more likely to call on male students to answer questions or perform demonstrations (Andrews et al., p. 10). It is possible that this contributes to lower self-confidence and interest in STEM fields for girls.

In the study conducted by Anna-Lena Dicke and her colleagues, the only facet for which girls indicated math was of more importance than boys was for earning good grades. This generally suggests that females place more weight on performing well in school than males do (Dicke et al., p. 10). This makes me wonder, is this the main reason that more women are attending college now?


Andrews, Glenda, David L. Neumann, and David Reilly. “Sex Differences in Mathematics and Science Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress Assessments.” Journal of Educational Psychology. 107.3 (2015): 645 – 662. Ebscohost. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.

Dicke, Anna-Lena, Barbara Flunger, Hanna Gaspard, Isabelle Häfner, Benjamin Nagengast, rigitte Schreier, and Ulrich Trautwein. “More Value through Greater Differentiation: Gender Differences in Value Beliefs about Math.” Journal of Education Psychology. 107.3 (2014): 663 – 677. PsycARTICLES. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.

Griggs, Marissa Swaim, Eileen G. Merritt, Sara E. Rimm-Kaufman, and Christine L. Patton. “The Responsive Classroom Approach and Fifth Grade Students’ Math and Science Anxiety and Self-Efficacy.” School Psychology Quarterly. 28.4 (2013): 360 – 373. PsycARTICLES. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.


2 thoughts on “Chapter Six: Gender Differences in STEM Proficiency

  1. dgromels says:

    Hey Sarah, I really like how your post is kind of a continuation of the research I did last week, but looking at a similar topic from a different angle. I think that this type of interaction that builds the collective knowledge of the class is exactly what Dr. Pereira wants us to be doing. As I was listening to you explain your research in class, I wanted to suggest that you look for studies that explore the opposite phenomena of what you originally explored. Are girls encouraged over boys in humanities classes? In many of my English classes, there are twenty or thirty girls and only two or three boys. I think we have a tendency to value the STEM fields over the humanities, but it would be important to note if boys are being held back from a field in the same way girls are held back from STEM.

    Your research also makes me think about the recent news reports on big chain stores like Target removing the designation of “girls’” and “boys’” toys to discourage the enforcement of gender roles. Exploring the topic of sex-typed toys could be a fascinating and involved course of research in itself. The types of toys we play with when we are children could have just as much influence on our future career goals as our education because it affects us at such as young age and probably influences what we focus on in school. I looked to see if there was any research on the topic and I came across quite a few interesting articles, but I found this one especially helpful if you decided to do your paper on gender:


  2. Colin Murphy says:

    Hi Sarah,

    You’re written yet another fantastic contribution to our class blog!

    Your research on gender differences in science, technology, engineering and math fields in education and the workforce is very interesting (and particularly relevant to the reading we’ve done thus far in the novel). It’s almost fun as readers to hunt through the text looking for the various gender roles and reading how the characters involved react often in comical ways. It’s a curious phenomenon that males do tend to dominate (in quantity) the STEM fields.

    What particularly caught my attention in your post was your research on the experiment where anxiety was controlled in students. It’s interesting how both genders “believed in themselves equally efficacious toward math and science” and that the trend in believing in one’s self actually predicts how successful said self will be. Your research on hormonal differences that develop after puberty is a potential explanation for this difference. Perhaps the typical hormonal balances in women post-puberty leave them with a tendency to develop anxiety around certain topics (not necessarily limited to STEM fields)? This could be an avenue you might choose to further research in your quest for explanations. And don’t just limit yourself to studies on women; conduct some research on which fields have lower numbers of males!

    Grade-school teachers certainly don’t seem to be helping the situation by calling on male students to respond to questions instead of their equally-capable female counterparts. I highly suggest you read Diane’s post on Chapter Five for some more potential research ideas and explanations. You’ve done a wonderful job of letting Slow Research and your classmates’ discussions guide you through writing your posts.

    Well done, and I look forward to hearing what you’ll bring to the discussion next week!



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