Myth Busted: Girls Can’t Do Math
The more we learn, the less we know.
This past week, conventional wisdom was once again turned on its head with the publication of a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Janet Hyde and her colleagues showing that girls are just as good as boys in math. But, as you’ll read on, you’ll learn researchers have known this for years. Why this continues to be “news” or the conventional wisdom is beyond me.
Though girls take just as many advanced high school math courses today as boys, and women earn 48 percent of all mathematics bachelor’s degrees, the stereotype persists that girls struggle with math, says researcher Hyde. Not only do many parents and teachers believe this, but scholars also use it to explain the dearth of female mathematicians, engineers and physicists at the highest levels.
“There just aren’t gender differences anymore in math performance, though.”
The study’s researchers tallied math scores from state exams now mandated annually under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), along with detailed statistics on test takers, including gender, grade level and ethnicity, in 10 states.
Using data from more than 7 million students, they then calculated the effect size, a method for determining the degree of difference between girls’ and boys’ average math scores in standardized units.
The effect sizes they found were basically zero, indicating that average scores of girls and boys were the same.
“Boys did a teeny bit better in some states, and girls did a teeny bit better in others,” noted Hyde. “But when you average them all, you essentially get no difference.”
No Difference at Highest Mathematical Levels
Some critics argue, however, that even when average performance is equal, gender discrepancies may still exist at the highest levels of mathematical ability.
To see if this was true, the researchers searched for those differences in a second part of the study. For example, they compared the variability in boys’ and girls’ math scores, the idea being that if more boys fell into the top scoring percentiles than girls, the variance in their scores would be greater.
Again, the effort uncovered little difference, as did a comparison of how well boys and girls did on questions requiring complex problem solving. What the researchers did find, though, was a disturbing lack of questions that tested this ability. In fact, they found none whatsoever on the state assessments for NCLB, requiring them to turn to another data source for this part of the study.
What this suggests, says Hyde, is that if teachers are gearing instruction toward these assessments, the performance of both boys and girls in complex problem solving may drop in the future, leaving them ill-prepared for careers in math, science and engineering.
“This skill can be taught in the classroom,” she says, “but we need to motivate teachers to do so by including those items on the tests.”
SAT Scores May Be Biased Toward Boys
The study’s final piece was a review of the granddaddy of all high school math tests, the SAT. The fact that boys score better on it than girls has been widely publicized, contributing to the public’s notion that boys truly are better at math. But Hyde and her co-authors think there’s another explanation: sampling artifact.
For one thing, because it’s administered only to college-bound seniors, the SAT is hardly a random sample of all students. What’s more, greater numbers of girls take the test now than boys, because more girls are going to college.
“So you’re dipping farther down into the distribution of female talent, which brings down the average score,” says Hyde. “That may be the explanation for (the results), rather than girls aren’t as good as math.”
Cultural Belief is Everything
Cultural beliefs that suggest boys are better at math than girls are “incredibly influential,” Hyde said, making it critical to question them. “Because if your mom or your teacher thinks you can’t do math, that can have a big impact on your math self concept.”
Still, will all of this be enough to finally shift this long-held attitude? Hyde can’t say, but she remains determined to do so.
“Stereotypes are very, very resistant to change,” she says, “but as a scientist I have to challenge them with data.”
The study was published in the July 25 issue of Science.
How Did We Get It So Wrong?
The real question left hanging in my mind is how can science get it so wrong for so long? How can an entire generation or two of children grow up thinking that because you’re a girl, you’ll never be very good at math even if you try?
Well, the fact is that that researchers have known that girls perform as well as (or outperform) boys in math for years (see, for example, Kenney-Benson et al., 2006):
Moreover, despite stereotypical expectations to the contrary, girls also receive equal or higher grades than do boys in stereotypically masculine subject areas, such as math and science (e.g., American College Testing Program, 1997; Jacobs, 1991; Pomerantz et al., 2002; for reviews, see American Association of University Women, 1999; Dwyer & Johnson, 1997; Kimball, 1989). Hence, in terms of grades, girls outperform boys in both stereotypically feminine and masculine areas.
So for as long as the “conventional wisdom” has likely existed, psychological research has also shown it to be largely incorrect and wrong.
Where the problem typically occurs is in testing:
A somewhat different picture emerges when the performance of girls and boys on achievement tests is examined. As is the case for grades, girls outperform their male counterparts on achievement tests in stereotypically feminine subject areas (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 2000, 2003b; for reviews, see American Association of University Women, 1999; Entwisle et al., 1997). However, boys perform better than girls on achievement tests in the stereotypically masculine areas of math and science, although boys have recently lost their edge over girls on achievement tests in math, on which the two often obtain similar scores (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 2000, 2003b; for reviews, see American Association of University Women, 1999; Hyde et al., 1990). Thus, although girls outperform boys on achievement tests in stereotypically feminine areas, they do not do so in stereotypically masculine areas.
So in grades — where schoolwork is done, day-in and day-out — girls rule. But when it comes to achievement tests, like the SAT, girls fall behind.
What this points out to me is obvious — the SAT and tests like it are gender biased. The fact that the test publishers know this and still do not correct for it is, well, odd. Perhaps it’s hubris thinking their tests couldn’t possibly be biased in this manner, or perhaps it’s a more difficult nut to crack than a simple score adjustment.
But whatever the case, let’s put this myth to rest for good — boys and girls are equal in math and have the same or similar potential to achieve in mathematics.
Kenney-Benson, G.A., Pomerantz, E.M., Ryan, A.M., Patrick, H. (2006). Sex differences in math performance: The role of children’s approach to schoolwork. Developmental Psychology, 42(1), 11-26.
Hyde, J. et al. (2008). Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance. Science, 321(5888), 494 – 495.
Sources: Press release and PsycINFO
Grohol, J. (2018). Myth Busted: Girls Can’t Do Math. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/myth-busted-girls-cant-do-math/