Why Do Women Perform Worse on Science Questions Than Men?

A Pew survey revealed a gender gap in respondents' knowledge of science questions.

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Sep 11 2015, 2:20pm

Image: Shaiith/Shutterstock

On average, women perform less well than men on science questions. That's one finding from a new Pew Research report that aimed to test the American general public's knowledge of science-related topics.

In a 12-question quiz completed by a representative sample of over 3,000 adults, women on average answered 7.3 correctly, while men on average got 8.6 (yeah, no one exactly came out looking great). The biggest difference was on a question about what happens to light when it hits a magnifying glass, which 55 percent of men but only 33 percent of women could correctly identify.

So what's the deal with the gender difference? Are women just bad at science?

Obviously, it's not that simple. For a start, the researchers acknowledge that most of the questions in this quiz are specifically in the realm of the physical sciences—tasks include identifying a comet and understanding elements used in nuclear weapons. These don't necessarily represent scientific knowledge on the whole.

"One thing we know from prior work is that, when it comes to the life sciences—topics in biology and other kinds of health and life sciences—we've seen that men and women have about the same level of knowledge," explained Cary Funk, lead author on the report. "If anything, women sometimes know a little bit more."

Chart showing average questions answered correctly on the Pew science survey. Image: Pew Research Center

While an earlier National Science Foundation report also found that men do better on physical science questions, it too stated that "there are few differences between men and women in terms of responses to questions focused on the biological sciences."

This gender discrepancy specifically in physics is likely down to many contributing factors. "These kind of patterns likely tie into broader patterns, partly related to the interests of different groups in different fields and topics, and that ties into the courses they take and the kinds of field they explore," said Funk.

Education is obviously a major factor, and while the Pew researchers found that general education levels (finishing high school or college, etc) had a significant impact on respondents' performance, women with a similar education to men still underperformed.

However, statistics show that there are fewer women who study physical sciences. One report shows that in the US in 2014 women made up 39 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in physical sciences, with this figure ticking down for master's and doctoral degrees. The American Physical Society puts the fraction of bachelor's degrees earned by women specifically in physics at around 20 percent.

And as Funk points out, the Pew survey was not designed to be some kind of IQ test, but specifically gauged applied knowledge in this area. It follows that if women are generally receiving less education specifically in physical sciences, they're not going to do as well on questions in that area. There's less of a discrepancy between men and women studying life sciences such as biology, which could go some way to explaining why women seem to perform on a more equal footing to men on those questions.

"When it comes to the life sciences, we've seen that men and women have about the same level of knowledge."

Why, then, aren't there more women in physics? Funk suggested one factor could be that women just aren't as interested in physical sciences. That may be true—and statistics in university and job applications support it—but to understand the bigger picture, we have to again ask why.

Lower interest in physical sciences among women doesn't automatically signify that women are somehow tuned to dislike physics. There's a whole structure that influences gender distributions in education and the workplace, which is all too easily written off as "Oh, women just aren't as interested in this subject."

Entrenched gender bias that starts with girls being given gendered toys (Barbie over Meccano) and continues with men getting hired in science roles over women even when they submit the exact same CV no doubt influences this apparent "lack of interest," especially if you're measuring it in terms of college and job applications, or performance on these kind of tests. Without getting too far into the zillion or so issues that affect women getting into and staying in science careers, framing women's apparent lower interest in some areas of science as a free choice, or some kind of generalised innate truth, is a cop-out.

And if anything, the gender difference in the Pew test only shows how much STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) industries are missing out on potential talent—because the discrepancy between men and women's performance on the survey is nothing compared to that in the workplace, where women take only 23 percent of STEM positions.

XX is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting developments in the Motherboard world.