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Why girls get more anxious about mathematics, STEM subjects than boys Featured

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Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, Ag. MD/CEO, Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, at girl's stand during the NDDC sponsored GEMS competition in Port Harcourt recently. Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, Ag. MD/CEO, Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, at girl's stand during the NDDC sponsored GEMS competition in Port Harcourt recently. Credits: File copy

Global studies have shown that women are underrepresented in some science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, subjects and fields. It is not only found to be so in developing countries as statistics have shown that even in countries with higher gender equality, sex differences in math and technical scores persist. Now, using international data, a team of psychologists from the University of Missouri, the University of California-Irvine and the University of Glasgow in Scotland, have determined that, overall, girls experience negative emotions about mathematics that can result in avoidance of math topics. Often called "mathematics anxiety," scientists have agreed that several factors other than math performance are resulting in higher mathematics anxiety in girls compared to boys.

According to a lead participant in the study published in sciencedaily.com, Professor David Geary, Curators Professor of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science, the team analysed student performance in 15-year olds from around the world along with socio-economic indicators in more than 60 countries and economic regions, including the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“Analysis revealed that girls' mathematics anxiety was not related to the level of their mothers' engagement in STEM careers, nor was it related to gender equality in the countries we studied. In fact, the gender difference in mathematics anxiety was larger in more gender-equal and developed countries. In more developed countries, boys' and girls' mathematics performance was higher and their mathematics anxiety was lower, but this pattern was stronger for boys than for girls," Geary said.

The study gave specific rate as to national differences. According to the study, in 59 percent of the countries analyzed, gender anxiety differences are more than twice the magnitude of gender differences in mathematics performance, indicating that factors other than performance are resulting in higher mathematics anxiety in girls than boys. Altogether, the study highlights the complexity of the gender differences in mathematics performance and anxiety.

The study also analysed the possible role of parental views on the value and importance of mathematics for their daughters and sons. In contrast with what many believe, parents in more developed countries placed a stronger emphasis on the mathematical development of their sons than their daughters which surprisingly, was against the fact that these more developed countries actually have larger proportions of mothers working in the STEM sector.

“Policies to attract more girls and women into subjects such as computer science, physics and engineering have largely failed,” said Gijsbert Stoet, reader in psychology at the University of Glasgow and a co-author of the study.

Stoet added that, “Gender equality is a key humanistic value in enlightened and developed societies, but our research shows that policy makers cannot rely on it as the sole factor in getting more girls into subjects like physics and computer science. It is fair to say that nobody knows what will actually attract more girls into these subjects. Policies and programs to change the gender balance in non-organic STEM subjects have just not worked.”

However, to reduce the regional rate in disparity in boys-girls’ enrolment in STEM related courses, the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, recently organised a competition for girls in senior secondary schools in its nine mandate states. Ag. Managing Director, Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, said the competition, Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science, GEMS, which had about 2,880 students participating, was meant to make the study of STEM more exciting to girls. “It is to de-mystify STEM related courses for our girls and encourage them to take courses in them since global statistics has shown that in the next fifty years, about ninety percent of global jobs will be in STEM related courses. We don’t need to be left behind”, Semenitari had told an audience that included representatives of the Federal and State governments, the academia and corporate executives.

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