Boys’ and Girls’ Academic Preferences

By The Duke Talent Identification Program

Discussions of the storms faced by adolescent girls offer no image more striking than “saplings in a hurricane.” Mary Pipher, Ph.D., used the phrase in her 1994 book, Reviving Ophelia . While Dr. Pipher’s book was based on her work with adolescent girls in trouble, other studies have indicated that lowered self-esteem is not restricted to girls in counseling.

Many researchers have wondered what this drop in self-esteem has to do with the choices girls make in coursework and careers. Why do girls take fewer advanced math, science, and computer programming courses than boys? Even among gifted students in accelerated programs, boys seem to have more confidence in their math ability. When and how does this difference emerge?

Past studies of gifted students’ academic attitudes have focused on the most obvious problem area—the period of adolescence. Studies of preadolescent children have drawn from a wide range of ability levels and have not always taken into consideration certain characteristics of gifted children, such as friendships with adults, advanced social cognition, and a strong desire to fit in. In their paper “Gender Differences in Academic Attitudes among Gifted Elementary School Students” (Journal for the Education of the Gifted, vol. 23, no. 4 [2000]), Mary Ann Swiatek and Ann Lupkowski-Shoplik, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary Students (C-MITES), note this gap in the research and investigate differences among children under age 12, when the differences appear to emerge. Their results are based on about 2,000 gifted students in the third through sixth grades who scored in the top 5 percent of students in their age group on a standard national achievement test. These students were first-time registrants for the C-MITES Elementary Student Talent Search in 1997–98.

Students completed a survey that included 11 questions. Gender differences were found for each question. The girls were more positive about verbal areas and about school in general than the boys. Swiatek and Lupkowski-Shoplik found that one explanation of girls’ lower level of participation in math and science was simply that they were more interested in verbal areas. They also found that older students were more negative about school and about such academic areas as computers, math, writing, and reading than younger students were. One surprising finding was that girls may test high in a subject and still not like it, revealing that their interests are not always related to how well they test. Clearly, the issue of academic interests in gifted students needs more study.

To keep their daughters from snapping in the winds of adolescence, Swiatek and Lupkowski-Shoplik recommend that “parents . . . expose both boys and girls to activities involving all kinds of skills. They can guard against assuming that boys will like math/science and girls will prefer verbal activities. They can try to ensure that their children’s teachers don’t make these assumptions or treat children differently based on gender.”

—Liz Walker

Liz Walker is a freelance writer specializing in family issues. Her work has appeared in Tulsa Kids Magazine, Oklahoma City Metro Family Magazine, Child Times of Alabama, and People Magazine.