Recently, the 2017 National Geographic “Geography Bee” aired on television and I noticed a glaring problem. Out of ten finalists, there was NOT. ONE. SINGLE. GIRL.
Was the lack of girls suprising? Sadly, no.
But I couldn’t let it end there. What is happening with geography and girls? Somebody tell me!
Encouraging girls to explore STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) has been trendy for at least five years or so. True, most schools don’t formally teach geography. But science concepts such as weather patterns, animals, and land formations underlie many of the Geography Bee questions. If we’re trying to get more girls into science, perhaps we’re not doing a very good job.
WHAT’S THE STORY WITH GEOGRAPHY AND GIRLS?
It turns out I’m not the only one who noticed the lack of girls at the Geography Bee. In 1996, the National Geographic Society commissioned a study to examine it. The results were rather disappointing. Here was the big finding… wait for it… Boys know slightly more than girls do about geography.
That’s the big reveal! And the theory continues that the very small difference in knowledge, compounded many times, throughout several competitions, schools, towns, counties, and states, results in mostly boys by the time you get to the nationals.
But why do boys know slightly more than girls about geography to begin with?
The same article notes that girls score slightly higher in math on national testing than boys, but I can bet you won’t see girls dominate math competitions in high school. I mean, come on, have you ever seen Mean Girls? If it were only about knowledge, girls would be swarming Math League. So then what’s the story?
In 2013, The American Enterprise Institute explored the geography gap with fresh eyes. It said that there are three possible reasons:
(1) The Geography Bee discriminates against girls;
(2) Boys are “more interested” in geography than girls or have a higher aptitude for it; or
(3) Boys and girls have the same aptitude, but the boys who are really good at geography are much better than girls who are really good at geography. (I’m paraphrasing).
Other articles analyzing this issue say that boys have better spatial skills, or that boys are just so much more naturally interested in maps and atlases than girls.
But I think they’re missing a possible explanation.
GEOGRAPHY PRODIGIES AREN’T JUST BOYS
Another category of people excelled during the Geography Bee. Children with Indian-American heritage were 6 of the top 10 finalists.
“The figures are staggering when one considers that out of this original pool of millions, only ten advanced to the Championship round and 60 percent of the finalists were of Indian origin in a country where Indian-Americans comprise 1% of the population.” (From Indian American Community News).
One finalist’s parents attributed the dominance of Indian-American children to heavy parental involvement in studies, goal-setting, a strong work ethic, and the strategy to pursue one direction rather than lots of skills.
Comparisons between Indian-American children and kids with other ancestry almost never point to inherent skill or ability as the reason. Most focus on the Indian educational system, which values heavy drilling and memorization, the role of highly-educated parents, and the power of working hard.
NATURE V. NURTURE
So why do we analyze these two populations of geography whizzes (boys and Indian-American children) so differently? Boys dominate because of skill and ability, while Indian-American children win because of culture and socialization. At least, that’s how the analysis goes.
In the lists of possible reasons for this phenomenon, they fail to raise other explanations that may be the root cause:
Girls are “less interested” in geography because society nudges them down the traditionally-girly pink path that doesn’t include science.
Major toy stores only recently began to remove “boys” and “girls” signs in the toy aisles. But we still see pink-washed aisles of dolls, glamour kits, and tea sets contrasted with dark blue shelves of action figures, science kits, and airplanes. It’s clear who is supposed to pick what.
The pink aisle tends to exclude science-related toys, unless they’re “pinkified,” which probably does more harm than good.
If a girl does express interest in geography, we fail to help her take it to the next level.
The parents of a geography bee finalist said that when their son became interested in a puzzle of the United States map, they wall-papered his room with maps. Do we take it the same distance with girls?
U.S. public schools generally don’t teach geography as a separate subject. So family and society are likely the gatekeepers to a blossoming geography interest.
We fail to help girls develop their spatial skills from a very young age.
Segregated toys have lasting consequences on children’s development. After all, children develop their minds primarily through play. So it should come as no surprise that girls are less represented in engineering and computer programming and geography when they are ushered toward nurturing toys, ponies, and fairies.
Girls are taught early that boys are smarter.
A terrifying study revealed a few days ago that girls as young as 6 years-old identify boys and men as being smarter. This is a problem that’s much bigger than STEM or geography. It’s frightening that girls receive messages so early that boys are smarter, when that is factually inaccurate.
Girls lack role models.
If girls flip on the TV and see only boys compete in the Geography Bee, they will instantly feel that it’s not a space for them. This goes for all underrepresented groups. If they don’t know or meet any women who excel in archaeology and neuroscience, they probably won’t be inspired to try these fields out.
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
Thankfully, National Geographic has evolved its analysis of gender since that 1996 study, but this wide gap still remains.
There are obvious ways to help. We can give our girls atlases and tell them about other countries. We can work on gender-neutral parenting.
But we can also help girls in ways that have nothing to do with mountain ranges and deserts. We must give them permission to try and to fail. And to fail again. We must tell them their minds matter more than their looks. We must help them understand that they can compete with girls AND boys. And finally, we must lead them beyond the narrow confines of the pinkified path to truly open their world and opportunities.
Photo: Via Hillsborough County Public School Rishi 13,
2016 National Geographic BeeLicense: © All Rights Reserved
Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic, Journalist, humorist and National Geographic Bee moderator Mo Rocca with the 10 finalists who took part in the 2016 National Geographic Bee © held at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., on May 25