Prestige of math and science scares off girls because they are less competitive

11 March 2014

What’s the problem with girls and mathematics? Despite many efforts to encourage their enthusiasm for science and technology, there are still only a few female students in technical universities and sciences like mathematics.

According to research, the gap between men and women can’t be explained by a difference in ability. Could it be that careers in maths and science are simply considered too prestigious and therefore too competitive to attract more girls? In laboratory experiments time and again men are shown to be twice as competitive as women and this appears to be true even at the age of fifteen. In the Dutch secondary school system in the pre-university track, students choose between four study profiles. Although schools try not to communicate this, most students agree that there is a difference in difficulty and prestige between the four profiles, based on the amount of mathematics and science in the program. 

Thomas Buser, assistant professor at UvA’s Amsterdam School of Economics, conducted research with UvA colleague Hessel Oosterbeek and Muriel Niederle from Stanford University. They found that competitive students are more likely to pick the most prestigious Science and Technology profile, regardless of their abilities. This profile prepares students for a university study in science or math. The difference in competitiveness between boys and girls can account for 23% of the gender gap in profile choices. 

Buser says that much is still unknown about how people choose their careers. “Economists still don’t fully understand that decision, which is a very important one, also for the economy. The career that people pick predicts their income later in life.” The choice of study profile in the third year of secondary school is a very relevant career choice. The selected profile determines which academic career is within reach after secondary school and most of the time people stick to the direction they took with their profile choice. The four options are science, health, social sciences and humanities. 

Buser: “Our aim was to see if we could measure the trait of competitiveness in a game and see if it predicts the choices people make for themselves in real life, for their careers.” First the researchers did experiments with almost 400 students in four schools to determine who was competitive. The students considered competitive were the ones who chose an all or nothing tournament over a fixed reward per correct quiz answer in the third and last round of the experiment. In earlier rounds the students’ abilities were measured and surprisingly the choice whether or not to compete had little or no correlation with abilities, neither for boys nor for girls. Buser: “We learned that boys are twice more likely to enter a tournament, even if it is not the right choice for them based on their abilities. They seem to enjoy competition and boys are more frequently overconfident as well. Girls often avoid a tournament, even if that’s their best chance for a maximum profit.” 

A few months later the researchers returned to the schools after the examined students had selected their study profiles. Buser: “As we expected beforehand, we found quite a strong correlation between competitiveness and the choices the kids made. On average kids that chose to compete in the tournament, picked the more challenging profiles, boys and girls alike. And as at the university level, significantly fewer girls than boys choose the most prestigious science profile. What we were especially interested in was: can we statistically explain a significant portion of this gender difference with the competitiveness variable? Apparently we could: around 20-25% of the difference between what the boys pick and what the girls do, can be explained by the difference in competitiveness.” 

The research raises enough questions for future study. Buser: “Is competitiveness biological, evolutionarily determined, or is it socially determined? Or is it both, something that is quite likely? Could it be manipulated to a certain degree and would that change decisions people make? And how do different environments influence competitiveness? That is actually something we will do first: a follow-up on these students. We want to track the same students and see how they are doing. Do they succeed? What are their grades? What will they study at university?” 

“If competitiveness is mainly cultural, maybe we have to change something in our educational system by not pushing girls too much to be nice or boys too much to be competitive. Or if it is mainly a personality factor, it could be a solution to make certain jobs and study programmes less competitive. Maybe the most talented people avoid certain jobs or careers they would be very good at, for example politics, because they don’t like competition. That can be costly, when society misses out on talented people,” says Buser.


Amsterdam School of Economics