Smart girls know how to use a screwdriver

Kate F. Wilson, David J. Low


The gender gap in the physical sciences is well known, with consistent gaps in performance on many assessment types, including standard tests. Many possible reasons for the gap have been proposed, including innate differences in males and females, and differences in experiences. In this paper we examine in detail the gender gap on one particular multiple choice question from the 2013 Australian Science Olympiads Examination for Physics, which asks how a tight screw can most effectively be loosened. The question is easily answered if one has experience of using a screwdriver; otherwise, an exceptional understanding of torque and friction is required to correctly answer the question.

We find that there are different choices of distractors by males and females and that while males perform better on this question than females overall, the gender gap reverses for high achieving students. This may indicate that very high-achieving girls are more likely than very high-achieving boys to have experience using a screwdriver. We conclude that providing experience using hand tools would be of benefit to all students, male and female.

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