How Research Helps Address Gender Equity

How Research Helps Address Gender Equity


For about twenty years teachers and researchers have been concerned about differences in the enrollments and achievements of girls and boys in science. Early work focused on differences in interest, attitudes, and motivation--it was thought that if girls liked science, they would do well in it. Early intervention projects helped teachers teach science in a "girl friendly" way and focused on the science that girls indicated they preferred (biology). Assessments of those projects indicated that neither the attitudes nor achievements of girls systematically improved. Recently, researchers have proposed a model that explains the complex socio-cultural, personal, and educational interactions that must be addressed to increase both the numbers and the achievements of girls in school science (Kahle, Parker, Rennie & Riley, 1993). Today, research tells us that the issues affecting girls in science must be addressed at an early age and may differ across groups.

Early Science Experience

Research at the University of Minnesota suggests that boys and girls learn socially appropriate behavior by 24 to 26 months of age. At that time, male and female stereotypes are set, and boys, more than girls, define what they will and will not do. Similar sex-stereotypic behaviors are revealed in very young science students. In one study, for example, kindergarten children were interviewed three weeks after they entered school. At that age, neither boys nor girls were able to define science, but -- even without that knowledge -- more boys than girls replied that they wanted to be scientists, that they were good in science, and that they had done science. The importance of these attitudes is reflected in the hypothesis that sex differences in course taking patterns are established as early as kindergarten.

Another study revealed that fourth grade girls showed a preference for biological science, while boys, many of whom had out-of-school experiences with mechanical and electrical activities, chose topics in the physical science. Furthermore, girls based their selections on what they should know, while boys selected science topics on the basis of what they wanted to know (Kahle & Damnjanovic, 1994).

By the time they reach adolescence, children have a well-defined identity. Studies show that girls' regard for science begins to decline in junior high school. For example, equal percentages of third-grade girls (67%) and boys (66%) respond that what they learn in science classes is useful in everyday life. In seventh grade, both boys' and girls' responses continue to be fairly high (54% and 57% respectively). However, boys retain that attitude through high school, while girls' perceptions of the utility of science falls 11%. The same is found to be true of interest in a science career. Boys and girls respond the same in the seventh grade, but many girls lose interest by the eleventh grade (Jones, Mullis, Raizen, Weiss, & Weston, 1992).

The deterioration of girls' views of science is reflected in their enrollment in elective science courses in high school. Although the last few years have seen a substantial increase in the number of young women enrolling in high school chemistry, they continue to be underrepresented in physics. There is also some indication that girls' increased chemistry enrollment may be due to increased science requirements for high school graduation, and that much of the increase is in nonacademic chemistry courses (National Science Foundation [NSF], 1996).

Science Education for Girls of Color

Recent research has focused on the scientific education for girls of color. This area of investigation has been hampered by the limited availability of data disaggregated by sex and racial/ethnic group. The few studies that have been performed suggest that in some racial/ethnic groups, gender differences in achievement, interest, and attitudes favor girls, not boys.

One study involved fourth and fifth grade students in urban schools which included a pre-assessment of attitudes, followed by a week of inquiry instruction in electricity, followed by a post-assessment of attitudes. Prior to instruction, there were no differences by race; that is, both African American and White girls anticipated enjoying biology more than physical science, while boys of both races expressed more interest in physical science. In the pre-assessment, significantly more boys than girls expected to enjoy the electricity unit. However, in the post-assessment, girls showed a significant improvement in attitudes toward doing electrical activities. This finding supports the premise that girls' negative attitudes and expressed dislike for certain topics may be based on lack of experience with them.

Further, sex-based differences were found for other responses, including self confidence and perceived difficulty of the electrical activities. The gender gap (favoring boys in both cases) was greater for White than for African American students. In addition, White girls expressed significantly lower levels of self confidence and ability and ranked the electricity activities as significantly more difficult than did students in the other three groups. Overall, results suggested that White girls in urban, elementary schools have more negative views of their own ability and interest in physical science than did African American girls (Kahle & Damnjanovic, 1994).

In a recent study, sex and/or race differences in student science achievement, as well as possible explanations for any differences, were assessed in urban middle schools. The teachers in the schools were involved in Ohio's Statewide Systemic Initiative's professional development. Questionnaires measured student science achievement (using National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] public release items) and factors associated with science achievement. Classroom observations and interviews situated the study and provided background for interpreting the quantitative findings (Damnjanovic, 1996).

Results revealed that girls scored significantly higher on the science achievement test than boys and that White students scored higher than African American students. Classroom teaching strategies (e.g., cooperative learning, inquiry, and problem solving) were significant achievement predictors for girls. Individual and socio-cultural factors (e.g., negative peer and environmental influences and attitudes toward science) were significant achievement predictors for African American boys. Classroom observations revealed that boys resisted involvement in classroom instruction to a greater extent than did girls. Although girls reported a higher frequency of parental involvement (e.g., assistance with homework and projects) than did boys, the type of parental support varied by the sex of the student. Girls reported support for science interests, while boys reported praise for personal characteristics (e.g., intelligence) (Damnjanovic, 1996).

In another study, data from the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS:88) were used to investigate factors associated with sex differences in middle grade science performance. Differences in science achievement test scores occurred mostly between racial and ethnic groups. White students received significantly higher scores on standardized science achievement tests than did Latino or African American students. In turn, Latino students performed significantly better on those tests than did African Americans. Sex differences on average achievement test scores were small but varied by race and ethnicity. Differences were moderate among Latinos (about 18% of a standard deviation), very weak among Whites (about 11% of a standard deviation), and nonexistent among African Americans (Catsambis, 1995). The same study found that middle school girls of all racial/ethnic groups held fewer positive attitudes toward science, participated in fewer science-related extra-curricular activities, and less often aspired to science careers than did their male classmates. The effect of student sex on science attitudes was strongest among Latino students. The sex difference for participation in extra-curricular science activities as well as aspirations for science-based careers was greatest for White students and least for African American students. An important interaction between student attitude and achievement was found as well. Specifically, African American students had the lowest science achievement scores of any racial/ethnic group in the study, yet they held the most positive attitudes toward the subject (Catsambis, 1995).

Findings for Asian Americans contrast with those for other racial groups. First, traditional (those who immigrated before the Vietnam war; i.e., Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino) Asian Americans are over-represented in science. They lead all groups in national assessments and standardized tests of achievement in science. Furthermore, in individual studies of attitudes, they tend to have the most positive attitudes of all racial groups about the usefulness and value of science. Studies have investigated the attitudes of traditional Asian Americans and White boys and girls who were Westinghouse Science Talent Search semi-finalists. Significant differences in attitudes and achievement separated White girls from the other groups. For example, they ranked lowest on the scales assessing self-concept, attributions for success, and persistence in science. They also had the lowest mean score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The researcher concluded that White girls were more influenced by gender socialization than were Asian American girls or boys in either group (Campbell, 1991).

Limitations and Future Research

Our knowledge base in gender equity has substantial gaps. Only recently have researchers had access to - or collected - data that allow them to examine gender differences in various racial/ethic groups. Studies disaggregated by sex and race have begun to provide important insights into the effects of sex-role stereotyping in various cultures. In addition, although much has been written about boys' preferences for certain types of learning environments, tests, and teaching, few of the implicit assumptions have been tested or studied. For example, a thorough search of the literature on cooperative and competitive learning environments found no studies of boys' preferences for either type of environment.

Perhaps the most critical area for future research is examining how students (both boys and girls) learn science. Such work has been done in mathematics. One exemplary study examined gender differences in problem solving strategies for 82 students (44 boys and 38 girls) as they progressed from grades one to three. The researchers reported no differences in the number of correct solutions found by girls and boys over the three year period for Number Fact, Addition/Subtraction, or Non-Routine problems. However, third grade boys solved Extension problems significantly more often than did girls. In addition, each year there were strong and consistent gender differences in the strategies the students used to solve the problems with girls using the less mature strategies of modeling and counting and boys tending to use strategies which indicated conceptual understanding (Fennema, Carpenter, Jacobs, Levi, & Franke, 1996). Expansion of this type of research to how children learn science will help teachers adjust their teaching to meet and build upon the learning strategies of different subgroups of students.

In conclusion, research supports the need for investigating gender equity issues in communities, homes, schools, and classrooms. It is clear that simply teaching--or treating--all students the same does not necessarily lead to equitable outcomes. Rather, differences home and out-of-school experiences need to be addressed in order to equalize knowledge and skills among groups of students. Further, recent research suggests that girls are not a monolithic group and that cultural differences may interact with educational opportunities to affect specific groups of girls differently. Finally, feminist and post-modern research recommends that both teachers and researchers review the nature of science in, and out of school in addressing gender equity issues. Researchers need to continue to investigate and teachers need to understand the complex interactions between society, home, and school that motivate all students to study and work in scientific and technical fields. The challenges for future research and education in this area are great.

by Jane Butler Kahle and Arta Damnjanovic, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056



Campbell, J. R. (1991). The roots of gender inequity in technical areas. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 28(3), 251-264.

Catsambis, S. (1995). Gender, race, ethnicity, and science education in the middle grades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(3), 243-258.

Damnjanovic, A. (1996). Ohio SSI factors associated with urban middle school science achievement: Differences by student sex and race. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Miami University, Oxford, OH.

Fennema, E., Carpenter, T. P., Jacobs, V. R., Levi, L., & Franke, M. L. (1996, July). Gender and mathematics: A new study. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York.

Jones, L. R., Mullis, I. V. S., Raizen, S. A., Weiss, I. R., & Weston, E. A. (1992). The 1990 science report card: NAEP's assessment of fourth, eight and twelfth graders. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics.

Kahle, J. B., & Damnjanovic A. (1994). The effect of inquiry activities on elementary students' enjoyment, ease, and confidence in doing science: An analysis by sex and race. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 1, 17-28.

Kahle, J. B., Parker, L. H., Rennie, L. J., & Riley, D. (1993). Gender differences in science education: Building a model. Educational Psychologist, 28(4), 379-404.

National Science Foundation. (1996). REC Indicator Series: The learning curve: What we are discovering about U.S. science and mathematics education. Washington, DC: Author.