US: Women gain in science while video games hold back boys

The number of women taking courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM subjects, has been increasing since 1966 according to a new report. But another study, on boys' academic responses to new video games, establishes a cause-and-effect relationship that could partly explain the decline in male academic achievement.

Women students in higher education now outnumber men in most countries, except Japan and Turkey. In the US, this has skewed the ratio among the sexes in terms of those who graduate: the proportion of males earning degrees has dropped to 43% while that for women has increased to 57%.

Women students have long dominated the humanities, with men still the majority in STEM. But while women have traditionally prevailed in professions such as nursing and teaching, veterinary and medical schools are now experiencing a flood of women students.

The report Why So Few?, released on 22 March by the American Association of University Women and underwritten by the National Science Foundation, surveyed the changing numbers.

Women's share of doctorates in mathematics rose from 11% in 1966 to 30% in 2006. Although women accounted for only 12% of biological and agricultural doctorates in 1966, they are now on the verge of becoming the majority qualifying in these field-oriented degrees.

The climb in doctorates today will increase the percentage of women working in the field and teaching in universities. Nearly half of biology-agricultural degrees are now awarded to women yet only 33% of staff and 22% of tenured US academics are female.

The report examines research into the factors that have held women back - from professors' bias against women students to stereotypical prejudice that girls cannot do well in science and maths.

Thirty years ago boys outperformed girls 13-to-1 in scoring above 700 on the mathematics SAT reasoning test at sixth and seventh grade levels. Today, this ratio is down to 3-to-1, demonstrating the difference is neither intrinsic aptitude nor genetic.

But women are not forcing men out of the classroom, rather taking empty seats as males fall by the wayside along the elementary school-to-college pipeline.

US newspapers of record in education - Education Week and The Chronicle of Higher Education - are buzzing with the debate. Several new books blame recent American curricular reforms for this 'boy problem'.

Conservative radio talk shows condemn the 'feminisation of the classroom' although there is little evidence that classroom interactions today differ significantly from a century ago.

Because women are ascending in academic performance in nearly all developed countries, the shift is probably not due to any one country's specific educational reforms. Several factors might be at play but whatever is depressing boys' school performance is cutting across cultural and political boundaries, and widely disparate educational systems.

One hypothesis attributes the decline to boys' greater addiction to video games. The academic performance of boys and girls began to diverge 15 years ago and the gap has widened in the last decade.

Boys, who were traditionally much better in mathematics, have declined and are now equal with girls in national US tests. This drop in boys' scores coincides with the emergence of video games.

Last year, Iowa State University researcher Douglas Gentile published a survey of American 8-to-18 year-olds which found 12% of boys were video-game addicted, having at least six symptoms out of 11, similar to a scale for gambling addiction. Yet only 3% of girls were video game addicts.

This study was a correlation and not a proof that video games caused the decline in boys' academic achievement. It was possible boys were attracted to video games as a consequence of being non-academic, rather than the games caused the poor academic performance.

But the proof that video-games-cause-a-decline-in-academics is now in hand, published in the February 2010 issue of Psychological Science.

Robert Weis and Brittany C Cerankosky of Denison University measured a group of boys' academic baseline achievement and surveyed their parents and teachers as well. They then gave half the boys video-game units. Boys receiving the video-game stations experienced an academic nosedive. The control group of boys without video games continued with solid schoolwork. This established the cause-and-effect relationship.

Nevertheless, some educationists and computer enthusiasts remain sceptical. While several countries have taken action to curb video-game addiction in students, it appears unlikely US parents or teachers will take electronic toys away from the next generation of boys.

* John Richard Schrock is a professor of biology at Emporia State University in Kansas.

KFN, a research institute in Germany has conducted a big survey on this issue and have found just what you say. Boys have more media equipment in their rooms at a very early age, and this makes a difference. Of course, there are other causes ,too, but the intense focus on media is the biggest. It is not only that boys spend more time with video games, it is also, that media violence has a bad effect on memory functioning.

Regine Pfeiffer