Not so long ago, advanced math and science courses in high school seemed more like an all boys’ club. As more girls began to take courses stereotyped as “male,” their friendship groups became an important part of the equation.
According to new research findings, having high-performing same-sex friends is beneficial for girls whose friendships can promote academic success in high school. However, the same effect did not hold true for boys. Friends’ grades do matter for girls in all subjects, and are even more important with regard to advanced math and science course-taking when their friendship group is predominantly female.
Dr. Chandra Muller
Since advanced math and science courses can be a prerequisite to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, high school course selection can be crucial. In January 2005, the controversial remarks made by the president of Harvard University that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers, further ignited the debate.
“The evidence does not show that females have lower abilities in these subjects,” said Dr. Chandra Muller, associate professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. “The gender difference in math and science test scores has declined over the last several decades but gender gaps in course-taking and college majors continue to exist, even among students of similarly high ability levels.
“The reasons why girls choose to pursue these subjects less frequently than boys appear to be more important in explaining the gender gap in course-taking and related outcomes.”
Researchers Muller and Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb, both from the university, and Dr. George Farkas of Pennsylvania State University are working together to study how friendships affect academic success. Using transcripts of 2,500 male and female high school students, their research tracked participants’ grades and courses in math, science and English and examined how their friendship groups affected their academic outcomes. The research was funded by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Science Foundation and included 13,000 students nationwide.
“Having friends that are high performers is associated with advanced course-taking in all three subjects,” Riegle-Crumb said. “Yet, what is unique to math and science is the positive association that comes from a friendship group that is predominantly female. Thus, the estimated effects of friends do vary based on the gender composition of the group, but only in math and science, areas where women have been historically under-represented.
“This suggests that the dominant presence of friends who are doing well is a visible reminder that females can do well in subjects stereotyped as male.”
“Since there are no social stereotypes or norms to discourage girls from taking advanced courses in English,” Muller said, “having high-performing friends may help, but generally the girls may feel free to embark on this traditionally gendered path without the additional support of an academically successful female friendship group.”
Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb
While it makes sense that positive role models and having friends with common goals would provide a good environment for learning, one may wonder why that benefit does not extend to the boys. The difference may be in how female and male students typically engage in competition.
“The girls seem to know they can work together and support one another,” Riegle-Crumb said. “They can compete and push each other to succeed in the classroom and there can be multiple winners, where the boys tend to take a winner-takes-all approach. They see a zero-sum game where there can be only one winner.
“For girls, female friends with higher grades function as role models who do well in the subject, set norms about working hard, establish a competitive but friendly environment, offer emotional support to surmount the difficulties of pursuing advanced courses and counteract any discouragement they might face.”
Another finding of the research was that there is not a significant gender difference in the percentage of students taking pre-calculus or higher.
“Math likely budged because schools changed their approach and girls perceived it as a core subject,” Riegle-Crumb said. “It’s really the physical sciences that are the last frontier for women.”
All students are required to take math and science, and therefore at the beginning of high school, girls’ same-sex friends are taking the same courses. This is a good opportunity for the girls to form an environment where they can encourage, compete and learn from their friends, who are also studying, struggling and succeeding in these subjects. Knowing that other girls are working hard also can provide a buffer against negative gender stereotypes and other forms of discouragement.
“Girls are agents in the process of educational attainment,” Muller said, “not just by making their own choices to pursue advanced courses, but also by influencing their friends to do the same.”
The positive effect of high-performing friends on girls’ advanced course-taking also combats the negative stereotype of female friendships as being cliquish or centered on manipulation, psychological attacks or fighting over boys.
“Female friendship groups can often be viewed as catty or manipulative,” Muller said. “We’ve seen movies like ‘Mean Girls’ where female friendships can have a negative influence. It’s good to see the potential for girls to act as positive sources of encouragement and support to move forward.”