It is precisely at the entrance to the CP where the results of boys in mathematics clearly exceed those of girls, concludes a French study published by the National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED). It is the first study to pinpoint exactly when the gap is visibly widening, assessing children as they grow into the mighty cohort. French longitudinal study from childhood (ELF).
Women choose science, mathematics and technology (STEM) studies less
From academia to the professional world, math and technology-related careers are chosen by far more men than women. “Although young women are in the majority in higher education, less than 40% go to science. About 15% in digital and engineering sciences.“, specified Myrtille Gardet, regional pedagogical inspector of physics-chemistry, who spoke at the 2021 “Women and Science” symposium. To combat these inequalities, many studies are looking for the origin of this gap. of this gap between the ages of 4 and 7 years.
“But if you show that this gap exists in CP or CE2, for example, that says nothing about its evolution, and especially when this gap starts to widen.”, he explains to Science and Future Jean-Paul Fischer, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Lorraine. With his colleague Xavier Thierry (INED), he thus studied more than 2,000 children from the ELFE cohort, which at its creation brought together more than 18,000 children born in 2011 whom he intends to accompany during the first 20 years of his life. The children, scattered throughout France, were 5 and 7 years old when they took the math and language assessment tests in the middle section of kindergarten and then in CP. Additionally, 10,000 children outside the ELFE cohort were also tested.
Math performance is invested in CP
The results reveal a real reversal of mathematics performance between the two classes, both in the sample of children in the ELFE cohort and in the sample outside the cohort. In the middle section of kindergarten, girls were slightly better at math than boys. But in CP, the same students showed a very clear difference this time in favor of the boys! “The gap only becomes visible in CP, but it is built in my opinion from kindergarten, almost from the beginning of school”, analyzes Jean-Paul Fischer. “Some think that this level difference is innate. In this hypothesis, so it should exist as soon as it can be tested“, he adds, but in babies under 1 year old, tests not of mathematics but of number and quantity estimation show identical performance.
Stereotypes and vicious circle
If this bias in favor of boys is not innate, it could reflect some kind of trade-off in language skills, which are – in previous studies and in this new work – in favor of girls at whatever level, says Jean-Paul . Fisher. But, he specifies, the performance of language does not show any inversion, they are higher in girls both in preschool and in PC and this from the age of 3. “There is, therefore, a specific evolution in the field of mathematics.”
According to a paper published in the journal Sciences in 2017, girls integrate stereotypes from the age of 6 who are less intelligent than children. It may be that this focus on mathematics appears”when children little by little become aware in kindergarten that mathematics is a differentiated subject, that numbers and letters are not just drawings and that they attribute another meaning to them”, also assumes Jean-Paul Fischer. Once the idea that math is too complex for them is embedded, young girls can develop increased anxiety on math testsamplified by actually lower results. “It’s a snowball, a real vicious circle“, concludes the researcher. “Something critical happens in the last year of kindergarten“, around 5-6 years old, warn Jean-Paul Fischer and Xavier Thierry in their publication. A finding that “should stimulate research on what could favor the development of such a gap”. And maybe he’ll figure out how to counter it.