Asian Students Better at Math and Science; Girls Equal to Boys in STEM Career Potential

Girls on Ship
Girls and boys consistently earn similar grades in high school math and science courses, while Asians are better than all other ethnic groups-- study researchers hope to increase the representation of women and minorities in STEM careers. Creative Commons

A new study finds that male and female students consistently earn similar grades in high school math and science courses, while Asians are better at math and science than all other ethnic groups- results that debunk gender stereotypes but reinforce racial ones about academic achievement and success in STEM careers.

Recent reports have indicated severe gender and race disparities among students who choose STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers in the United States. According to the United States Commerce Department, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, even though they make up almost half of the American workforce.

African Americans and Latinos, while comprising over a third of the United States population, make up less than 10 percent of all Americans with STEM jobs. Asian Americans, on the other hand, make up 5 percent of the general population but 17 percent of all the nation's STEM jobs.

The Obama administration has repeatedly declared its dedication to improving STEM education and job access to young Americans of all backgrounds, since STEM jobs are a major source of future growth and are thus seen as powerful drivers for underrepresented minorities to achieve economic and social equality.

Researchers Nicole Else-Quest, Concetta Mineo, and Ashley Higgins were interested in examining how these gender and race disparities in the STEM workforce compared to the actual academic performance of high school students in math and science courses.

They studied the 10th grade year-end math and science grades of 367 male and female students at five diverse public high schools in Philadelphia, who identified as either white, African American, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian American. They also recorded the students' perceptions of their own math and science abilities and expectations of success.

The results, published today in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, showed that male and female students had no significant difference in their math and science grades. Male and female Asians were better at math than all other ethnic groups, and Asian American males in particular received the highest scores. African American and Latino males, on the other hand, received the lowest scores.

"Asian American male adolescents consistently demonstrated the highest achievement compared to other adolescents, mirroring the 'model minority' stereotype," wrote the researchers in their paper. "In contrast, the underachievement of Latino and African American males is a persistent and troubling trend."

Male students reported having much more confidence in their own math abilities than female students, as well as higher expectations of success, while female students reportedly valued science more than males. Those trends held across ethnic groups.

The researchers took family income and education levels into account, finding that white students in the sample were much more likely to come from higher-income families with greater parental education and more books in the home, despite living in the same neighborhoods and attending the same schools as their peers from other ethnic groups.

Interestingly, the parents of Asian American students in the sample had comparably lower education levels to those of the African American and Latino students- indicating cultural differences that influence student achievement.

The researchers concluded that self-concept and expectations of success are strong predictors of achievement in math and science. In future studies, they plan to study how emotional variables like anxiety, boredom, apathy, enjoyment, and pride reflect on students' academic achievement.

"Despite gender similarities in math and science achievement, female adolescents tend to believe their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) abilities are just not as strong as those of their male classmates," said Else-Quest, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, in a statement.

It seems that this lack of confidence limits girls' future success in STEM fields, or that enduring cultural stereotypes drive them away from science and engineering careers. The same may be true for underrepresented minorities. Else-Quest's team hopes that their findings about student attitudes can inform programs that aim to overcome gender and racial disparities in STEM achievement.

The full study is available on the SAGE Journals website.