A large part of promoting gender equality lies in connecting more women with STEM jobs (jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Before that can happen, women need to be encouraged in related school subjects early in their lives. However, as suggested by a new study, STEM programs in middle and high school may already come too late, as the learning gap between girls and boys in these subjects may start as early as kindergarten.

The study found that at the beginning of the kindergarten school year, boys and girls showed equal mathematical abilities, but by spring there were noticeably more boys than girls in the highest achieving groups. By the time students entered the third grade, this gap had become significant, with far more boys in the higher achieving math groups than girls.

“Moreover, this same issue we observed in a national sample of students who began kindergarten in 2010 was largely unchanged from what we observed for students who began kindergarten over a decade prior in 1998,” study co-author Emily Miller, an assistant professor at the Department of Mathematics at West Chester University explained, as reported by The Huffington Post.

This research involved 5,000 kids who entered kindergarten in 1998 and another group of more than 7,500 preschoolers in 2010.

A particularly disturbing finding of the study centered on teachers' attitudes toward the gender gap, and the idea it could start as early as kindergarten. For example, New York University professor Joseph Robinson Cimpian told The Huffington Post that one teacher defended the gender gap by explaining, “That’s because girls can perform as well as boys if they try hard enough.”

Teachers may not treat female students much differently than males, they just have implicitly lower expectations for them. For example, study co-author Sarah Lubienski explained how simply praising girls for using conventional methods, getting correct answers, and being neat could have limiting consequences.

Past research has shown that others' expectations of you can have a real impact on your performance; simply expecting an individual to do better at a task can produce tangible results. For example, some researchers have suggested that the high academic performances and general good behavior of first-born children may be linked to their parents' high expectations, something that tends to wane with each new child.

“We really need to think about our training of our teachers and making them aware of their potential implicit biases,” explained Robinson Cimpian.

Teachers aren’t the only ones subconsciously discouraging young girls from high achievement in STEM fields; parents play a role as well.

“Girls should not hear their mothers say ‘I was never any good at math,’” Lubiensky added. “Moms should model mathematical confidence and curiosity around their daughters."

Source: Cimpian JR, Lubienski ST, Timmer JD, Makowski MB, Miller EK. Have Gender Gaps in Math Closed? Achievement, Teacher Perceptions, and Learning Behaviors Across Two ECLS-K Cohorts. AERA Open. 2016

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