What Do AP Subject Exams Tell Us About Differences In Academic Interest By Gender?

Mark Perry
updated | Author's Website
AP Subject Exam, 2011 %Female  %Male 
Studio Art: Drawing7426
Studio Art: Design7228
French Language6931
Art History6634
English Literature6337
Spanish Language6337
Spanish Literature6337
English Language6238
Chinese Language5842
French Literature5842
Environmental Science5644
World History5545
Human Geography5446
U.S. History5446
European History5347
U.S. Government5347
Calculus AB4951
Comparative Government4852
Music Theory4258
Calculus BC4159
Physics B3565
Physics C22674
Physics C12377
Computer Science A2080
Computer Science AB1486

The table above shows the gender breakdown for 35 Advanced Placement subject exams taken by high school students in 2011, based on data just released in the subject supplement as part of the 8th Annual “AP Report to the Nation.“  Here are some observations:
1. Of the 35 AP subjects, female high students were over-represented in 20 subjects, male students were over-represented in 14 subjects and one subject (Latin) was perfectly balanced by gender. 
2. In the science area, female students showed a greater interest in biology (59%) and environmental science (56%) than males, and males showed a greater interest in chemistry (47%) and physics (65%).
3. For mathematics subjects, female high school students were slightly over-represented in statistics (52%) and males were slightly over-represented in calculus (51%).  For advanced calculus, male students were over-represented at 59%.  
4. For all languages except German, more female students took language AP exams than males, and for French, female students outnumbered male students by more than 2-to-1.
5. Male high school students were significantly over-represented in all three physics exams, and both computer science exams. 
Bottom Line: Assuming that high school students take AP classes and exams based on their interests in certain subjects, there do appear to be some gender-based differences in academic interests.  Even within STEM fields, there appear to be gender differences, with female students showing a greater interest than males in biology and environmental science and males showing a greater interest in chemistry and physics.  Female students show an interest in statistics and calculus, but less of an interest in advanced math (calculus) and very little interest in computer science compared to their male classmates.   
Here’s a prediction: If these AP test results generate any controversy or concerns, it will only be a very selective concern about female under-representation in physics and computer science, but no concern about male under-representation in art, language, history, biology, environmental science and psychology.
Further, assuming that the AP test data reflect some natural gender differences in academic interest, that could then explain this recent prediction from Science, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education:
“It could take nearly 100 years before half of all professors in science and engineering are female, according to an article out on Friday in the journal Science. The assertion is shocking because people in academe have been working for decades to increase the number of women in those fields.”
MP: Maybe it’s not so shocking if the AP subject subject test data are reflecting natural differences in “revealed gender preferences” of academic interest.  When there are almost 350 high school boys taking the advanced physics AP exam for every 100 high school girls, and more than 600 boys taking the advanced computer science AP exam for every 100 girls, it’s understandable that it might take 100 years for perfect gender parity for STEM professors.  And based on the “revealed academic preferences” of female high school students who are voluntarily choosing different subjects than boys for AP classes and AP exams, maybe that’s demonstrating that women can live perfectly successful and rewarding lives without ever achieving perfect gender parity in STEM fields.

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