Granite Geek: N.H.'s Gender Gap in Advanced Placement Science Exams

Oct 29, 2015

New numbers released by the College Board show that for every New Hampshire girl who took the AP or “Advanced Placement” exam in computer science, more than 7 boys took it. It’s just one example of the gender divide in fields of study in New Hampshire. David Brooks, a reporter for The Concord Monitor and writer at Granitegeek.org, spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. 

That number is huge. More than seven boys, actually 7.47 boys, for every one girl taking the AP computer science exam. Is this surprising to you?

Well, not really. Perhaps the size of the disparity was surprising to me. So these numbers came out and like for all local reports,  I thought I’d tried to localize of them and look at New Hampshire. I assumed they would reflect some of the stereotypes you expect within academia, within the sciences. So, this is the AP exam that juniors and seniors take in high school and they can get college credit for. Some of them are kind of almost required when you’re applying for colleges. So, they’re voluntary, this isn’t like the SATs, which to a certain extent makes them more interesting, because this shows what subjects people choose to take. And you don’t take them in all subjects, you choose the subjects, because there’s thirty or something different subjects.

So more boys are choosing computer science, and a variety of other things, actually.

Yeah, so the stereotype in science is that males prefer the quote "hard sciences" and females prefer the "soft sciences." Basically, if there’s interacting with other living things, then females like it and if there’s interacting with mathematics, then males like it— that’s the stereotype. And if you look at these ratios, then that absolutely holds true. So, for example, ordering it by those subjects that had the most males, as compared to females, taking the exam, they are in order—computer science, physics-C, which is electricity and magnetism, physics-C mechanics, economics micro, physics two, economics macro, and physics one.

So, those are all stereotypical male programs. You go to any college and you go to the meeting of the physics majors or the electronic engineers and you’ll see the gender divide is enormous. On the flip side, the topics that the largest number of females were taking were studio art drawing, and studio art 2-D, then psychology, English literature, human geography, English composition, French.  And the first science, well I take the back, psychology of course is a science, but the first sort of hard-ish science that you get to is biology, in which there was about three women taking it for every two men.

And according to this list, the subjects that seem to have the most balance would be statistics, US government, and European history. They seem pretty close there.

Yeah, statistics was actually the one kind of surprise.

Because it’s a math heavy subject, and you would expect it, stereotypically speaking, to be weighted towards males.

And it was very slightly weighted towards females. My only guess, and this is just strictly a guess, is that more females are taking statistics than you might expect because statistics is increasingly important in the life sciences. And so, if females say, “I want to go into environmental science”, which is another popular field with females, or “I want to go into biology,” then I’m going to need to know statistics. As compared to—they’re not going to need to know calculus necessarily, so that would be my guess.

So David, why do these stereotypes seem to be holding true?

That’s a very good question that I do not know the answer to, and frankly neither does anybody else. There are many plausible hypotheses, ranging from evolutionary biology, which says we’re descended from hunter-gathers and the males would go out hunting, which means they needed to develop spatial and numerical relationships in their head. And the women would stay back, which means they needed to learn how to interact with other humans and other living things. And that certainly sounds plausible and nobody has any idea, and it’s not a testable hypothesis.

Or you can say it’s culture, which certainly is reasonable as well. The example I like to give frequently is you go to a hospital and you look at people leaving the birthing room. And, if they’re couples, 99% of them, the male will drive home and the female will carry the baby. So there’s this cultural signal right at birth almost as to what gender roles are and no matter how hard we try it’s very hard to get away from those cultural signals. Maybe that’s what’s doing it—and again, I have no idea, and neither do you, because it’s extremely difficult, it’s impossible to do a testable hypothesis here. 

I could say that in my own family, I’m the humanities major. In college I played around with a newspaper, in college my wife played around with an electron microscope, and yet our kids—my daughter is in environmental science, and my son is in mathematics, which is very much the gender stereotype you would expect in the sciences. So, I don’t know where that came from, it just seemed to come out of nowhere. So, where did this come from and therefore how do we change it, if we even want to change it is a very, very hard problem.

What is the argument for those who say we should reverse the stereotype, that more women should be studying the heavy math subjects.

The hard sciences.

Yeah, the hard sciences, and that more men should maybe be studying the studio art.

It’s almost a biodiversity argument in the sense of if you get more different people looking at the problem, you’re more likely to stumble onto an answer, to find an answer. And if everybody in computer science is the same kind of guy, then they’re less likely to think outside the box, if I may buzzwordify. Then, if some of them are this kind of guy, some are that kind of guy, some are this kind of woman, some are that kind of woman. So, if you don’t have diversity, you’re not tackling the problem as well. So it’s almost a more efficient use of resources, if you will.