Girls more likely to take advanced science and math if same-sex friends take these subjects

iStock_000016869784XSmallGirls continue to show less interest in science and math during the high school years and perceive themselves as less competent in these areas compared with boys. But, a new study in Sociology of Education reports that if girls have same-sex friends who perform well in math and science, they are more likely to take advanced courses in physics, pre-calculus and similar subjects.

“Our intention is to build on previous research detailing the benefits of mentoring, close relationships with adults, an all-female environment in promoting girls’ interest and achievement in science and math, extending this research to include the potential benefits of high-performing female friends,” write Catherine Riegle-Crumb, George Farkas and Chandra Muller, the authors of the study.

The researchers used data from the new educational component of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health),  the Adolescent Health and Academic Achievement (AHAA) study, which now allows researchers to study the influence of friends on educational outcomes.

The researchers looked at students’ advanced course taking in three subjects and their reported friendships with students of the same sex and the opposite. The effect of female friends on advanced course-taking by females is even more significant if the student has mostly female friends rather than a more mixed group of male and female friends. The authors speculate that the presence of boys in a friendship group may perpetuate gender stereotypes.

By contrast, boys who have mostly male friends, are less likely to take more advanced math and science classes than if they have both male and female friends, the researchers report.  Predominantly male groups may be less academically-oriented than mixed-gender groups, they speculate. But there did seem to be a benefit of having male friends with good grades. For boys, high-performing male friends may simply work as a protective mechanism against negative academic outcomes such as dropping out and failing.

Girls who take calculus

The highest probability (over .7) for taking pre-calculus/calculus is for a girl to have a group of mostly female friends with an A average. The same effect was not seen in advanced course-taking for English, probably because English is a more traditionally female subject.

Previous studies have shown that female mentors in math and science help girls achieve in these areas. With the influence of peers becoming more important during the high school years, the researchers wanted to examine if high-achieving peers could have the same effect as adult mentors.

Friendships may function differently for boys and girls, and even serve different purposes, the researchers note. Girls are more other-oriented and are socialized to worry about the opinion and approval of others, according to the social psychological literature.

“During adolescence, concerns about being well-liked and popular may make girls more vulnerable to the influence of friends, in contrast to boys’ concerns about being competent and independent,” the researchers write.

Add Health is a nationally representative stratified random sample of 7th-12th grade students in 132 middle and high schools in 1994-95. Nearly all the students in these schools completed the brief In-School Survey and about 20% of those students (20,745 students) completed the longer and more detailed Wave I survey. Students, excluding seniors, were again surveyed in 1995-96 for Wave II (14,738 students). In 2001-02, students, including seniors, completed the Wave III survey (15,170 students). Data on students without school transcripts or information on friendships was filtered out.

Students identified best friends

As part of the In-School Survey, students were asked to identify their best male and female friends, with a maximum of five friends of each gender. A primary focus of the research was to look at friends’ academic performance.

One major concern about studies that attempt to model the influence of friends is the issue of selection bias, i.e.  that students may be choosing friends with similar characteristics, making it difficult to determine what socialization may have taken place. The researchers addressed that by controlling for the respondents’ own grades in the same year as well as for the level of the respondents’ courses in that subject.


“The Role of Gender and Friendship in Advanced Course Taking,” by Catherine Riegle-Crumb et. al., Sociology of Education” July 2006, Volume 79, pps. 206-228.

Published in ERN, October 2006, Volume 19, Number 7

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