UW–Madison study finds ability rankings have different effect on girls’ and boys’ STEM career aspirations

By Laurel White 

Students who are highly ranked in their classes are more likely to aspire to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but girls benefit less than boys from higher rankings, according to a new study from a UW–Madison researcher. 

The study analyzed boys and girls in middle schools in China, where it is common for students to be publicly ranked among their peers, based on academic performance. The analysis took into account those public rankings and students’ self-reported STEM career aspirations. Using data from the China Educational Panel Survey, the study also considered the prevalence of mathematics-related gender stereotypes in classrooms. 

Overall, the inquiry found students who were highly ranked in their classes reported higher levels of interest in STEM careers, but that the effect was more evident for boys than girls. The study also found those gender disparities increased in classrooms with higher reported levels of gender-math stereotyping. 

Ran Liu, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies, co-led the study with Jinho Kim, a UW-Madison graduate who is currently an assistant professor at Korea University. 

Ran Liu

“We basically found that for students, even with the same ability, if they rank higher, they are more likely to develop a STEM aspiration, and this is more likely for boys,” Liu explains.

Liu points out a number of studies have shown persistent gender differences in STEM aspirations among adolescents. Researchers still don’t know all of the factors behind that phenomenon, but evidence has pointed to the importance of structural inequalities and gender stereotypes. 

“This is one effort trying to untangle that question,” Liu says.

Liu noted the China Educational Panel Survey provides clear information about the prevalence of math-related gender stereotypes. The survey includes the question, “Do you think boys are born better at math than girls?”

“Over half of the students responded, ‘yes,’” she says. “We do find it’s a widely existing stereotype.”

Liu says research has shown the stereotype to be prevalent around the world. The aim of her work is to provide data that encourages educators to pay more attention to practices like ranking, as well as to use materials and have conversations that promote girls’ STEM self-concepts and ambitions. 

“We want to see more efforts and initiatives to address gender disparities in schools,” she says. 

Liu says those efforts and initiatives could include more female models in science and math textbooks, more female math and science teachers, and more awareness training about the stereotype — including calling it out directly and dispelling it in conversations with students and their parents. 

The article, “A big (male) fish in a small pond? The gendered effect of relative ability on STEM aspirations under stereotype threat,” was published last month in the European Sociological Review. 

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