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Girls and Math? – Girls and Math! – How Gender Influences Students’ Achievement and Motivation

Prof. Dr. Martin Brunner and Dr. Lena Keller
Photo : Thomas Roese
Prof. Dr. Martin Brunner and Dr. Lena Keller

Women now make up more than half of all students at German universities. In subjects such as physics, engineering, and computer science it looks completely different though. Here, most of the students are male. “When you look at the competences of pupils, it doesn’t have to be like this,” say Prof. Dr. Martin Brunner and Dr. Lena Keller.

They have expertise in gender differences in student achievement. In the BIG-GENDER project, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the two Potsdam psychologists are examining the results that children and adolescents achieve in large-scale achievement assessments – namely according to their gender. “Large-scale assessments such as the PISA study have enormous potential for us researchers,” says Martin Brunner, Professor of Quantitative Methods in Educational Sciences at the University of Potsdam. For the two psychologists, this representative data is a treasure trove that they use to answer a wide range of questions about educational inequalities.

The researchers looked at three international student assessment studies with data from several million students from 1,000 representative samples to better understand the different achievements of boys and girls: the PISA study (Programme for International Student Assessment), which examines the skills of 15-year-old students in mathematics, natural sciences, and reading, TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) as well as PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). TIMSS measures math and science skills in grades four and eight. PIRLS focuses on reading skills in grade twelve. The studies are representative samples, i.e., they reflect the overall target group of all school-age children and adolescents. Participants are selected at random and not, for example, suggested by their parents, so that distortions are excluded. “In total, over 100 countries took part in these studies, half of all countries in the world,” Prof. Brunner explains.

The researchers cannot confirm that girls cannot keep up with boys in mathematics, as it is often claimed. “In Germany, gender differences in mathematics achievement among 15-year-olds are very small,” Keller explains. “The skills of girls in mathematics and natural sciences at the end of secondary school are virtually on a par with those of boys - and yet girls decide against choosing STEM subjects as advanced courses in upper secondary school or pursuing an apprenticeship in this field after school,” Prof. Brunner explains. However, the difference widens by the time they finish high school because many boys choose STEM subjects as advanced courses. “Until the start of upper secondary school, there would still be an opportunity to take action, for example with counselling services,” Keller says.

Keller’s dissertation, which initially laid the foundation for the DFG project, showed similar results. At that time, she looked at the results of girls and boys from the PISA study who were among the best mathematicians of their age in a country, and if or how they differ. “These are very special young people who have enormous potential in STEM fields and can make outstanding contributions later on,” Prof. Brunner explains. Keller examined over 300 samples from the data of several million school children from 2000 – 2015, the top 5%, i.e., 114,000 young people who achieved top results in mathematics. “Boys were slightly better, but not as much as the stereotype would suggest,” Keller explains. Out of five top achievements, three were by boys and two were by girls. According to the researcher, this difference does not explain the fact that women are significantly underrepresented in various STEM fields, both at university and at work.

How equal opportunity policies and student achievement are connected

The three international studies PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS give Keller and Brunner the opportunity to compare gender differences in student achievement internationally. In the BIG-GENDER project, they investigated whether these differences are related, for example, to the level of gender equality in the participating countries. This level is determined on the basis of various aspects, namely the proportion of women in research and in higher positions such as in management or in civil service. The number of girls and women enrolled in elementary school, secondary schools and universities also plays a role. The analysis showed: The more women study at university in a country, the higher the proportion of girls with top achievements in mathematics. Keller and Brunner also found that the areas surveyed in the PISA study - reading, mathematics, and science – are at a similar level, especially for girls, if the proportion of women in higher education is bigger in the respective country. According to Keller, one explanation for this could be that parenting and teaching behaviors are different in countries with a large number of highly educated women. It is possible that a comparatively high proportion of female students at universities has a signaling effect. “It can signal to girls that achievement at school pays off,” Keller says. According to Brunner, women who study and work in decision-making positions in turn break down structural barriers and allow younger female colleagues to get access to stereotypically male spheres.

For many people, such spheres also include the subject of computer science, which makes them think of solitary work in front of a computer, Keller says. “That doesn't appeal to the majority of women and girls. Many girls with a talent for mathematics are more interested in organic knowledge, in everything that is alive, such as botany or the humanities, and they want to be useful to the community.” She is convinced that girls and women would be more attracted to the subject if there was a stronger focus on community and teamwork. “They should be made aware that they have great opportunities in mathematical and scientific professions with their skills and interests,” Prof. Brunner says.

How intersectionality influences student achievement

Keller and Brunner have also continued to develop an approach that captures how the different social categories in a person affect their educational outcomes. This provides researchers with differentiated insights into questions of intersectionality, i.e., the interaction of social dimensions such as gender, socio-economic status, and immigrant background. “Together with our colleagues, we have transferred an approach from epidemiology to the field of education,” Keller explains. “It is a highly differentiated analysis that is completely new in education research.”

Using data on German pupils from the PISA 2018 study, the researchers demonstrated how gender, immigrant background, the parents’ level of education and their occupational status interact in so-called intersectional strata and influence the reading performance of adolescents. In all intersectional groups, girls have an advantage over boys when it comes to reading. Brunner and Keller were not only able to show that the individual categories have certain effects: That girls on average perform better in reading than boys; pupils with a immigrant background have slightly lower reading skills than those without; adolescents with at least one parent with a high school diploma achieve a higher score in reading than those without; and that the greater the occupational status of the parents, the better the reading results of the adolescents.

What is even more, all these aspects interact with each other, so that girls without an immigrant background with at least one parent who has a high school diploma and whose parents enjoy a high occupational status read even better than the individual categories would suggest. They are more than half a school year ahead of their peers. The interplay of social categories therefore exceeds the effects of each individual category. “Intersectionality therefore has a clear influence on student achievement,” Keller says. The researcher hopes that in the future, large-scale assessments will capture social inequalities, disabilities or chronic illnesses, as well as gender affiliation beyond “male” or “female” in an even more differentiated way, or at all. “These categories can lead to discrimination, which can have a negative impact on students’ achievement and their motivation to learn,” she says.

Funding for BIG-GENDER will end in June 2024. The researchers hope that the results will be recognized nationally and internationally and will provide opportunities for action to attract more female students to the natural sciences. After all, there is a huge shortage of skilled workers. The two researchers can already look forward to a follow-up project, also funded by the DFG, in which they want to look at the digital divide between boys and girls in primary and secondary education.

The Researchers

Prof. Dr. Martin Brunner has been Professor for Quantitative Methods in Educational Sciences at the University of Potsdam since 2017.
E-Mail: martin.brunneruni-potsdamde

Dr. Lena Keller has been a researcher at the University of Potsdam since 2019.
E-Mail: lena.kelleruni-potsdamde

The Project

BIG-GENDER: Big data meta-analyses of gender differences in students’ achievement and achievement motivation drawing on large-scale assessments.
Participants: Prof. Dr. Franzis Preckel (Trier University), Prof. Dr. Oliver Lüdtke (Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN), Centre for International Student Assessment (ZIB))
Funding: German Research Foundation (DFG)
Duration: 2020–2024

Large-scale assessments (LSAs) are comparative surveys using psychological-pedagogical tests that are widely used to assess education-related knowledge.


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Eins 2024 „Bildung:digital“ (PDF).


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