Gender and the GeoBee
Each spring I look forward to the National Geographic Geography Bee, which will be hosted here at our headquarters tomorrow. Because it’s a closed event (even for us), I can’t sneak in to catch a peek of the action live (though it is streamed on video throughout the building). But I get charged up by kids getting excited about geography and cultural knowledge that will serve them well in our globalized world. Plus, the chance to win a $25,000 scholarship, a lifetime membership to National Geographic, and a trip with a parent to the Galápagos Islands is pretty darn exciting.
In the week before the big event, staffers set up a map of the U.S. and its territories in our cafeteria and tape black and white pictures of the competitors on top of their home state. Each year, I hope to see more girls on the map. This year, there’s only one female participant out of 54. Her name is Isabella Contollini, she’s a 12-year-old sixth grader from Colorado who’s traveled to Guatemala and trekked an active volcano.
Today, the competition winnowed the 54 state champs down to ten finalists. Isabella didn’t make the cut but if she had and had gone on to win the whole she-bang, she would have been only the third girl to win the competition since it began in 1989. My fellow Keystone stater Susannah Batko-Yovino claimed the crown back in 1990 (she’s since earned her M.D.) and Caitlin Snaring of Washington captured the honor with a perfect score in 2007.
So, is there a geography gender gap? Nat Geo wondered the same thing, way back in 1996, when it commissioned a geographer and a psychologist from Penn State University to find out why so many boys were in the Bee. Their study yielded some interesting info, including the fact that boys and girls enter the competition at the school and state levels in roughly equal numbers; that those who win genuinely love geography (and aren’t competing, for example, under pressure from an overly doting parent); that competing in public didn’t seem to disproportionately disadvantage the girls; and that boys seem to have better spatial and map skills. The researchers concluded that there is a “small, but real” gender gap in the GeoBee.
Where does such a gap come from? Is it cultural? Do we, as a society, encourage boys to be more assertive? Is it biological? Do boys really have greater spatial reasoning abilities, going way back to our hunter and gatherer days? Are their fingers faster as American Prospect
magazine wondered in 2000? Is educational policy to blame? An intriguing caveat is the fact that another competitive adolescent battleground, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, isn’t dominated by boys; in fact, boys and girls compete in the spelling bee in pretty equal numbers and more girls than boys have taken home national titles.
I’m not sure why girls aren’t there in higher numbers and I wish there were more. But I know while I’m trolling the halls tomorrow looking for Jeopardy!
host Alex Trebek, I’m going to see many young people who provide solid examples of individuals ardently pursuing knowledge, geographic or otherwise, and that’s something we should all seek in our lives.
The National Geographic Channel will air the finals tomorrow on Wednesday, May 26th, at 6 p.m. Public television will also screen the final; click here to find your local air time.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
For more on the GeoBee, check out its main page here. If you’d like to learn a bit more about this year’s 54 participants, click around this Google map
(the Bee’s sponsor for the second year) where you can see where finalists are from, read a short bio about them, and, for some contestants, watch a snippet of video in which they introduce themselves and show you around their home towns. And don’t forget to take the GeoBee Challenge yourself here.
Photos: National Geographic (top); Meg Weaver (middle)