Early school success in English may be pushing girls away from STEM careers

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Historically, significantly fewer women study and work in STEM-related fields. While there likely isn’t just one reason for this gender imbalance in labs focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math across the country, researchers from the University of California-San Diego’s Rady School of Management are offering up a new potential factor — better grades early on in English class.

Young girls tend to excel in the language arts during elementary school and receive more parental support than their male classmates. Since people tend to gravitate toward careers they’re good at, study authors theorize many girls “self-select” themselves away from STEM careers due to garnering much more early-childhood reinforcement in language arts.

“We find girls are better in English than boys in grades three through seven,” says study co-author Anya Samek, an associate professor of economics at the Rady School, in a university release. “Because girls are more likely to do well in language fields early in life, they may find themselves more inclined to choose them for majors and careers. Thus, women may be underrepresented in STEM in part because of their cultivated talents achieved earlier in life.”

More parental involvement leads to better grades

Study authors reached these conclusions by performing a longitudinal study examining and tracking the amount of time parents spent with their children between the ages of three to five in combination with the children’s test scores at ages eight to 14.

That analysis showed the more time parents spend teaching their kids between ages three to five (up to three hours or more a week) seemed to correlate with higher test scores by the time the child was ages eight through 14. For example, parental teaching for three or more hours displayed a connection to a six-percent increase in scores in English for children in the fourth grade, in comparison to relative to parental teaching for one hour or less.

Importantly, however, the team noted a gender gap in regard to parental investment among children between the ages of three and five. On average, parents tended to spend more time studying with girls. As far as why this is the case, researchers say there are numerous possibilities. For instance, the research team noted that female participants had an easier time sitting still and focusing. Similarly, 18 percent of participating parents of girls said their daughter enjoys their study sessions together.

Parental help only improves English scores?

Most of the families were from Chicago, and a total of 2,185 children and 953 parents responded to the surveys. A sub-section of those participants (702) also provided test-score data.

All in all, girls performed much better in language-related studies than boys. However, scores among girls and boys in mathematics were fairly similar. Study authors found a stronger correlation between parental investment with language scores than math scores.

“I think it’s surprising to see that parental investments are correlated with the test scores in English but not in math,” Prof. Samek adds. “It could be because we’re told to read to our kids at least 10 minutes a day. We’re told to introduce them to books and I think we probably spend less time thinking about how to engage children in math.”

“We show that early-life investments by parents are strongly associated with later-life language skills but only weakly associated with later life math skills. It could be that parents just do not spend as much time teaching children math as they do reading. If that is the case, the next step may be to encourage parents to teach their young children math alongside reading,” the researcher concludes.

The study is published in AEA Papers and Proceedings.

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