Girls innately bad at math? Nope.

A new study suggests that lower girls’ math scores result from lower status in society more generally. The cross-cultural study reveals that:

Globally, boys tend to outperform girls in maths (on average girls score 10.5 points lower than boys) but in more “gender equal societies” such as Iceland, Sweden and Norway, girls scored as well as boys or better.

For example, the maths gender gap almost disappeared in Sweden, while in Turkey girls scored 23 points below boys in maths.

Average girls’ scores improved as equality improved and the number of girls reaching the highest levels of performance also increased, the researchers found.

Girls outperformed boys in reading everywhere, but even more so in places with greater gender equality:

On average, girls have reading scores that are 32.7 points higher than those of boys (6.6% higher than the mean average score for boys). In Turkey, this amounts to 25.1 points higher, and in Iceland, girls score 61.0 points higher.

Researchers conclude:

Sapienza said: “Our research indicates that in more gender equal societies, girls will gain an absolute advantage relative to boys.”

I must say I’m just as sceptical about claims of girls’ innate superiority as I am regarding claims of their innate inferiority. And just as disturbed. Still, this is fascinating stuff, and clearly bears more investigation.

One thing I wonder about is how ‘gender equality’ of an overall society is measured, and the exact details of how it’s realised in different societies– as well as details of their educational systems. Sadly, I don’t have time to go read the article right now! So if you do, please tell us about it.

18 thoughts on “Girls innately bad at math? Nope.

  1. Thanks so much, Jender! This is so important.

    The original argument is in Science, which means it should have gotten rigorous scrutiny. It isn’t available online unless you have a subscription or can get it through a library. But the supporting materials are online here:
    There you can see that gender-equity societies are determined by four factors, including economic and political participation. I plan to save the document.

  2. I’m curious to see how the mainstream media will respond to this — if they’ll pick it up, have op-eds about it, etc. The cynic in me thinks it’s more likely that it will just be ignored, while folks at place like the Boston Globe spend their time this week on stuff like this instead.

  3. Rachel, great point. I’d hope for the NY Times on Science on Tues, but there’s a huge (the Times says “cosmic” ) science fair going on this week.

    One good thing about its being in Science is that tons of scientists, engineers and maths people will read it, along with a mixture of social sciences.


  4. I think there is no reason to believe boys are inherently better at math or that girls are inherently better at reading. One factor in creating these discrepancies is the way in which math and reading are taught. In math classes, teachers often give a problem and call on the first person who comes up with an answer. This creates a stressful competitive climate that many (but obviously not all) girls find challenging. In reading classes, teachers often steer students away from violent literature and non-fiction works that some boys favor.

  5. asad123

    It’s interesting that the report suggests that the difference really is a matter of whether the society is a gender-equity society. Perhaps women in such societies can compete more confidently, though I’m not sure if we know that.

    As I remember, a report we described earlier –
    also addressed differences in reading and that’s also looks like it varies with socio-economic differences. Teaching itself really appears to make less difference than we may think.

  6. It’s interesting competition is mentioned. I just spent a semester in Sweden and they seem quite uncompetitive. There aren’t even official grades until high school.

  7. I keep thinking about the unfortunate way that I phrased the findings in the post’s title. What the studies show, if they’re right, is that environment has an enormous impact on disparities between boys and girls, with the math disparity only appearing in contexts of inequality. Does this show anything about innate math ability? Well, I’m really puzzled by the whole idea of innate math ability, especially once we realise how vastly mathematical achievement seems to be affected by environment. I’d like to know more about how people make sense of this. Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that there’s a big gap in favour of girls with regard to reading ability, and bigger in contexts of equality. One thing I’d like to know is whether this is caused by girls’ scores going up or boys’ scores going down. I suspect the former. But if it’s the latter, it may be an indication that these aren’t really contexts of equality– but that something is holding boys back in these contexts. If the former, I remain troubled. And I can’t quite sensibly explain why.

  8. My mother came from a rural farming background (the only one of her sibs to “leave the farm” ) and became a math professor at a major US university. She was born in 1906. Back then, women were not expected to go to college, and they certainly were not encouraged to go into mathematics (a very male field then – is it today?).

    She was always infuriated by the way that girls and women were considered by many to be somehow genetically incapable of grasping mathematical concepts.

    She quietly, but firmly, made her mark….

  9. I did not put that emoticon in my message – but I guess its not too inappropriate…

  10. That’s really interesting! I’m kinda surprised,though,girls are usually smarter than boys in EVERYTHING! lol

  11. Pure mathematics, at least in the US, has an underrepresentation problem comparable to philosophy, economics, and physics. Statistics and applied mathematics do a little better (they’re at least above the 30% mark).

  12. J, WordPress inserts emoticons all on its own. They’re elated to the close-brackets sign. I think that and a close-quote sign is too much for it to resist.

    I’ll take it out.

  13. Indeed!

    I looked around “help” and found imperfect instructions for turning the emoticons off. Several tries later, I had negotiated the twists and turns and arrived at the turn off switch. Having failed to leave any trail, I reckoned it might be hard to find it again and so unchecked the box and turned them off!

    More seriously, I reckon I can turn them by on if anyone wants.

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