his year, as last, I was a judge at
the AAA Travel High School Challenge, a scholarship contest that
pits each state's top geography students against each other. And
this year, as last, there was only one girl among the 12 finalists.
It stunned me anew -- after all, the majority of travel agents
are women, and in most academic subjects, girls outperform boys. My
wife was a geography major, and my daughter's no slouch on the
subject. Among the best (and most adventurous) travel writers are
Irishwoman Dervla Murphy and Englishwoman Freya Stark.
But data suggest that there is a gender-based geography gap. In
a standardized test titled Knowledge of Geography, boys outperform
girls in all four subcategories. The National Assessment of
Educational Progress, administered by the National Center for
Education Statistics, also shows boys doing better than girls on
its geography standardized tests. And, if anecdotal evidence means
anything, only one girl has won the National Geographic Geography
Bee since its inception in 1989.
National Geographic commissioned a study to discover why it's
had only one female champ. Here is what the study concluded: There
is only a slight difference between what girls and boys know about
geography, but, starting at the school competition level, you'll
end up with more boys winning than girls. You do the same at the
state level, ending up with even a greater percentage of boys. Do
it a third time at the national level, and you end up with what
seems a disproportionate number of boys to girls, though the
difference started out as being much smaller.
But why even that small difference? Perhaps, the answer can be
found by listening to the male finalist in the AAA contest who
traced his love of geography to the maps that decorated his room.
"I used to study them and imagine that this country invaded that,
or this one put an embargo on that one," he said. While the four
AAA female state champs tended to talk about their interest in
geography being rooted in curiosity about cultures, the boys
focused on, well, the more testosterone-charged aspects of
geography, perhaps reflecting the philosopher Johann Gottfried von
Herder's observation that "history is geography put into
There is a passage about maps in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of
Darkness" that may well characterize a young boy's burgeoning
interest in physical geography. "There were many blank spaces on
the earth," the protagonist Charlie Marlow says about the maps he
poured over as a child, "and when I saw one that looked
particularly inviting on a map ... I would put my finger on it and
say, 'When I grow up I will go there.' "
Young girls' fantasies about travel may be tempered by biases
against females traveling alone, but I don't think that's at the
root of the disparity. Women writers like Murphy and Stark weren't
intimidated, and traveled independently. But they are most
interested in exploring relationships with the people they meet --
that is the orientation that is most important to them. All that
said, I believe the degree to which women focus more on culture and
men more on physical place is, in any case, only slight.
And so by only the slightest of margins, perhaps boys will
better know the globe, and girls its inhabitants.