SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Skills people possess later in life may develop early in childhood, and there can be significant differences in skill sets depending on gender, according to findings released Tuesday by UC San Diego's Rady School of Management.
The findings may explain in part the paucity of women compared to men working and studying in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The researchers found women may opt out of such fields because they receive more early childhood reinforcement in language arts, according to the UCSD study, "Parental Investments in Early Childhood and the Gender Gap in Math and Literacy," to be published in the journal American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings.
"We find girls are better in English than boys in grades three through seven," Anya Samek, an associate professor of economics at the Rady School and one of the study's co-authors, said in a statement. "Because girls are more likely to do well in language fields early in life, they may find themselves more inclined to choose them for majors and careers.
"Thus, women may be underrepresented in STEM in part because of their cultivated talents achieved earlier in life," Samek said.
The findings were based on a study in which the researchers examined time parents spend with their children from ages 3 to 5, alongside the children's test scores when they were ages 8 to 14.
Additionally, the more time parents spent teaching children from ages 3 to 5 -- up to three hours or more a week -- correlated with better test scores when the children are ages 8 to 14. For instance, teaching three or more hours predicted 6% higher scores in English for children in fourth grade, relative to teaching one hour or less.
However, there's a gender gap in parental investment in children, the researchers found. On average, parents spent more time with girls and several factors could contribute to this disparity. For example, compared to boys, the researchers found girls had a stronger ability to sit still and focus, and parents of girls were also 18% more likely to report that their child liked it when they taught.
According to the data, girls did substantially better in language- related studies than boys, while scores for girls and boys in mathematics were more similar. Researchers found a stronger correlation between parental investment with language scores than they did with math.
"I think it's surprising to see that parental investments are correlated with the test scores in English but not in math," said Samek. "It could be because we're told to read to our kids at least 10 minutes a day. We're told to introduce them to books and I think we probably spend less time thinking about how to engage children in math."
The study participants were mostly from Chicago and included 2,185 children and 953 parents who responded to surveys, 702 of whom also provided test-score data.
"We show that early-life investments by parents are strongly associated with later-life language skills but only weakly associated with later life math skills," Samek said. "It could be that parents just do not spend as much time teaching children math as they do reading. If that is the case, the next step may be to encourage parents to teach their young children math alongside reading."