A new study suggests exposure to high-achieving boys can erode girls' achievements and confidence, especially in STEM subjects. Buy why? And what can we do about it?
Once upon a time, girls weren’t expected to learn much in school. The only reason for a girl to go to college, the thinking went, was to meet a potential husband.
Thankfully, these backwards notions have all but disappeared from most corners of our society. And changing attitudes have in turn led to greater educational opportunities for girls and women. Women graduate four-year colleges at higher rates than men, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and gender achievement gaps are narrowing among primary school students, according to research from Stanford University.
Even as we celebrate these accomplishments, however, a recent study sounds a cautionary note. A paper released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that some girls who learn alongside high-achieving boys might be at risk for a range of negative outcomes, including lower math and science grades, reduced likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree, lower participation in the labor force, and diminished confidence and ambition.
Why are these girls falling behind?
The reasons for these results are not yet totally clear, but a subtle sexism certainly seems to be at work. Long-lingering stereotypes hold that boys’ brains are simply better at science and math, and any number of studies has shown this bias creeps into students’ education.
Exposure to high-achieving boys, therefore, could cement these notions for some girls, leading to a sense that they just can’t keep up. Teachers are not immune to these biases either, and may be more likely to encourage boys they see as high-performing while focusing less on girls.
“More generally, these high-school girls may become more discouraged or think themselves less competent which could then affect their actual performance,” the authors wrote.
How to give girls an academic edge
So what does it all mean? Well, it’s just one study, and more research is clearly needed before these effects can be confirmed and their causes convincingly teased out. But the paper’s conclusions do suggest something that many parents and educators have long believed: That for some girls, an all-female school environment can offer powerful advantages.
At a girls’ school, there are no opportunities for a male math whiz to accidentally reinforce the stereotype that boys are naturally better at solving equations than girls are. At a girls’ school, every student council president, every valedictorian, and every star athlete is a girl, so students have constant exposure to models of female achievement and leadership.
Studies suggest that boys are subtly and consistently encouraged to speak out in group settings, while girls are more likely to be rewarded for being quiet and “well behaved.” In a girls’ school, this split simply does not — cannot — exist.
Parents who worry that these age-old gender dynamics may have an impact on their daughters might want to consider whether an all-girls school would be a good fit; our boarding and day schools listings include dozens of options for all-female education. And if you or your daughter are not ready for that level of commitment, consider a summer program at one of the country’s elite women’s colleges, like Wellesley or Smith.
All-girls education does not guarantee success or erase the impact sexism can have on girls, but it is an option well worth considering.