Why Do Boys Do Better Than Girls in the "Geo Bee"?

By Marni Merksamer
National Geographic Today
May 23, 2001

Participants in the Geographic Bee have always differed in age, ethnicity, religion, and gender. However, when it comes to earning a place at the national championships, the majority of semifinalists share one thing in common—they are boys.

More than 700 contestants have made it to the final rounds of the "Geo Bee" since it began in 1989. Of those, only 44 have been girls, and only four of them have made it to the finals.

This year, there were no girls headed to the final round. In fact, in the history of the Geo Bee there has only been one female winner.

Why is this? According to a national testing service, girls score higher than boys in reading, writing, civics, and math. Boys score slightly higher in the subject of science. Why then are only boys making it to the finals of the Geo Bee?

In 1996 the National Geographic Society commissioned a study to figure it out. Roger Downs, an author of the Gender and Geography study, could draw only one conclusion—there is a slight difference between what girls and boys know about geography.

Downs told the television news show National Geographic Today, if you start at the school level and you have slight differences between boys and girls, and pick the best, you are more likely to have boys than girls. You do the same thing all over again at the state level, pick another student. Do it a third time at the national level and you end up with what seems an incredible difference, but the difference starts out as being very, very small.

National Geographic has been focusing its efforts in trying to get more girls to the semifinal and final rounds in years to come. Mary Lee Elden, head of the Geo Bee since 1989, told National Geographic Today, "We are working with the Girl Scouts across the country trying to establish more programs and establish more geography with them." During June, the Society will offer a one-week geography technology camp to ten senior Girl Scouts.

Elden also wants to encourage more schools to participate. Currently only 25 percent of the 72,000 eligible schools in the United States participate in the Geo Bee.

Susannah Batko-Yovino is the only female to have ever won the Geo Bee, in 1990. She does not believe she will be the last. National Geographic Today asked her if she had any general advice for this year's finalists. She said, "I think that once you realize how much you are getting out of competing in the bee, the prizes and the thrill of winning become secondary to the experience of everything, and I hope that's the attitude that kids will bring to the Bee."

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