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Closing the Gender Gap

What's holding girls back in math and science?

Though the gap has shrunk in recent decades, women are still less likely than men to pursue undergraduate majors or careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, according to a report by the National Science Foundation. New research points to some subtle factors that may be blocking their advances—and to possible solutions.

The Distraction of Anxiety.

Math-inspired anxiety appears to impair test performance in women by taxing their working memory, according to a new study in the Journal of Educational Psycholog y. "When women are anxious and worry about their performance, the monitoring of this worry takes up processing space," says Colleen Ganley, a psychologist at Florida State University. Parents and educators can help ease the problem by watching their own attitudes: Research shows that when mothers and female teachers express their personal unease with math, it can actually rub off on female students.

Stereotype Threat

The perception that one risks confirming a negative idea about one's group—known as stereotype threat—has long been shown to hinder females' academic performance. Students need not believe these stereotypes to be stymied; they only need to be aware of them, explains Hank Rothgerber, a psychologist at Bellarmine University. A recent study showed that the phenomenon also affected the performance of female chess players when they faced off against boys. Confident role models and self-affirmation exercises may help lessen the impact.

Debatable Division

Would an all-female learning environment help boost girls' performance in science and math? It appears not: A new meta-analysis of 184 studies involving 1.6 million students worldwide found neither higher academic interest nor achievement among students in single-sex schools or classrooms. "We looked at a wide array of outcomes," including science performance, attitudes toward math, and self-esteem, says Janet Hyde, professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who directed the review. "We found no advantage to single-sex schooling for any of the outcomes."