Hard Evidence: Teachers' Unconscious Biases Contribute To Gender Disparity

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Girls often outperform boys in science and math at an early age but are less likely to choose tough courses in high school. An Israeli experiment demonstrates how biases of teachers affect students.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

At early ages, girls often outperform boys in math and science classes. Later, something changes. By the time they get into high school, girls are less likely than boys to take difficult math courses and less likely, again, to go into careers in science, technology, engineering or medicine. To learn more about this, David Greene spoke with NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Shankar brought in some new research from schools in Israel that seems to identify one reason for this gender disparity, and Shankar's here with us.

Shankar, what exactly does research show?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, the new study suggests, David, that some of these outcomes might be driven by the unconscious biases of elementary school teachers. What's remarkable about the new work is it doesn't just theorize about the gender gap, it actually has very hard evidence. Edith Sand at Tel Aviv University and her colleague, Victor Lavy, analyzed the math test scores of about 3,000 students in Tel Aviv.

When the students were in sixth grade, the researchers got two sets of math test scores. One set of scores were given by the classroom teachers, who obviously knew the children whom they were grading. The second set of scores were from external teachers who did not know if the children they were grading were either boys or girls. So the external teachers were blind to the gender of the children.

GREENE: OK, so two sets of scoring going on. These are sixth grade students in math classes in Israel being scored by some teachers who knew exactly who these students are, some teachers who had no idea.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. Sand and Lavy find that the classroom teachers tend to give the girls lower grades in math than the external teachers, and they give the boys higher grades. Now, since the external teachers don't know the gender of the students, this suggests the classroom teachers are biased. They're giving the girls lower math grades than they deserve. Here's what's really fascinating, David. The researchers don't stop there. They actually tracked the same children into high school. Here's Sand.

EDITH SAND: We see that it discouraged girls from pursuing to high level courses in science and mathematics. And we see the opposite effect on boys.

GREENE: So this is looking at sixth grade. And she's suggesting that girls are being scored unfairly, getting lower test scores in sixth grade and getting some kind of message that science and math are just not for you?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, David. And it works the opposite for boys. Boys are told, wow, you're really good at math, even though they might not be so good, and they get the message that science and math are for me. One of the very interesting things that Sand and Lavy find is that the children's family background seems to make a difference. Children whose mothers are as highly educated as their fathers seem to be protected against the effects of this bias when they reach high school. Here's Sand again.

SAND: Students that come from families where the fathers are more educated than the mothers, they're more affected by that still typical attitude of the teachers. Students that come from more egalitarian families, we see that they're less affected.

GREENE: Let me just make sure I understand that. You might have young women who are getting these lower grades in science and math, but they have a mother with the same education as their father. They might have a mother who's a role model and it might make up for this. But women who don't have that role model, these grades - these lower grades really might affect their decisions.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, David.

GREENE: But we should say, Shankar, this is one country. I mean, there are different gender dynamics, obviously, in different countries. So it's - I mean, we should be careful not to extrapolate too much.

VEDANTAM: I think that's totally fair to say, David. This is also a study that needs to be replicated in different countries and replicated in the same manner, where you're following children from elementary school into high school. One of the things that I think is really interesting here is that we don't pay attention to the role that unconscious biases might play in schools at this very early age.

Most of the teachers in the Tel Aviv classrooms at sixth grade - most of the teachers are women. So it's hard to imagine that these teachers actually have conscious animosity toward the girls in their classroom. Much more likely these biases are operating at an unconscious level. And even in sixth grade, they might be virtue in having some of these tests graded in a blind fashion, where the teachers don't know whether if they're grading boys or girls.

GREENE: All right, Shankar, thanks as always.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That's Shankar Vedantam. He regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And you can follow him on Twitter at @HiddenBrain.

MONTAGNE: You can also follow this program at @Morning Edition and @nprgreene, @NPRinskeep and @NPRmontagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.