Girls From Poorer Families Outperform Boys in Math and Science, Study Shows

According to the researchers, one reason is that boys from poorer families feel they have more opportunities in the future, while their female peers feel they need to excel at school.

An illustrative image of an Israeli classroom.
Moran Maayan

A new study shows that Israeli girls from poorer families do better than boys from poorer families in math and science, with girls in the Arab community prodded by parents seeking to empower them before they go out into the world.

The study was based on data from all Israeli high schools and included dozens of interviews. The researchers strove to determine what makes girls avoid advanced courses in areas such as physics and computer science.

The researchers also aimed to learn what can be done to encourage more girls to take the highest level of math classes – known in Israel as five-point math for the national matriculation exams, as opposed to only four-point math.

The study also found that boys in such classes have a very large influence on the girls, and girls still have less confidence than boys in math and science because of gender stereotypes. Meanwhile, parents, especially fathers, should do more to encourage their daughters to study math and science, the researchers said.

The study was conducted by researchers from Bar-Ilan University and the Henrietta Szold Institute with the help of the Trump Foundation, a participant in the Education Ministry’s program to encourage advanced math studies in high school. The study was completed at the end last year.

The researchers looked at all 12th-grade Israelis who took the matriculation (Bagrut) exams between 2010 and 2014. In the 2013-14 school year, 9 percent of girls took the highest, five-point level in math. This compared with 13 percent of boys.

The figures for earlier years were similar: 12 percent to 14 percent for boys compared with 8 percent to 11 percent for girls.

But schools in poorer areas had more girls taking the highest level of math. For example in 2013-14, 14 percent of girls in such high schools took five-point math, compared with 8 percent of boys.

The authors of the study – Dr. Rachel Zorman, the head of the Henrietta Szold Institute, and Keren Dvir – also compared boys and girls in math in the various school systems. They found that in the Arab community, which is poorer than the Jewish community, more girls than boys took the highest-level math tests: 16 percent compared with 9 percent for boys.

The percentage of students with high scores is similar for boys and girls, 58 percent and 55 percent respectively. But in high schools in poorer areas, more girls take five-point math than boys: 12 percent compared with 7 percent. In Arab schools, 20 percent of girls take the highest level of math, compared with 12 percent of boys.

Zorman says that in the country’s outskirts and in the Arab community, girls have higher achievement levels than boys. This goes for all subjects – math, physics, chemistry and computer science – and the trend is the same in certain other countries.

One explanation for Arab girls’ success is offered by Prof. Ronit Kark of Bar-Ilan’s Psychology Department and gender studies program. Arab girls see themselves as better in math and science, and their parents agree, Kark said. One reason is that boys feel they have more opportunities open to them in the future, while girls feel they need to excel in their studies.

For example, Arab men can study overseas if they are not accepted to programs in Israel, while women do not believe they have this option, Kark said. Boys go out more, while Arab girls stay home and study. It's very prestigious in Arab society to marry a woman who studied math and science; it is thought this will contribute to the children and the home.

Also, according to the parents, women face double repression as both Arabs and women. Meanwhile, parents want to provide their daughters with some form of power when they go out into the world, and excellence in their studies is one answer.

According to Kark, Arab girls do not say they are looked down on in school because of their gender; instead, they receive a message that they are expected to succeed.

In comparison, the researchers found that in nonreligious Jewish schools boys often intentionally intimidate girls in math and science classes. For example, girls said boys make them feel that such classes are not for girls. Kark said the stereotype of math and science for boys made girls curtail their studies of these subjects, or even avoid them altogether.

Throughout Israel, computer science has the lowest percentage of girls among all the subjects considered. Only 4 percent of 12th-grade girls take the highest-level computer science, compared with about 10 percent of boys.

The opposite is true in chemistry and biology, where girls outnumber boys in the highest-level classes; 10 percent of girls take the five-point chemistry exams, compared with 7 percent of boys. For biology, the gap between girls and boys is even greater; about 20 percent versus 11-13 percent.

Finally, Kark said parents, especially fathers, play a very important role in encouraging girls to study science and math. Fathers are the ones who help their daughters in math, she said.