A new study has debunked some common assumptions about gender and math achievement — in particular, the idea that girls and women are less proficient in math because of a difference in biology.
“We tested some recently proposed hypotheses that try to explain a supposed gender gap in math performance and found they were not supported by the data,” said Janet Mertz, Ph.D., senior author of the study and a professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Instead, the new study, by Mertz and Jonathan Kane, Ph.D., linked differences in math performance to social and cultural factors.
The researchers looked at data from 86 countries to test the “greater male variability hypothesis” expounded in 2005 by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, as the primary reason for the lack of outstanding women mathematicians.
That hypothesis contends that males diverge more from the mean at both ends of the spectrum, which means they are more represented in the highest-performing sector.
In looking closely at the international data, the researchers found that greater male variation in math achievement is not present in some countries, and is mostly due to boys with low scores in some other countries, indicating that it relates more to culture than to biology.
The new study relied on data from the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the 2009 Programme in International Student Assessment.
“People have looked at international data sets for many years,” Mertz says. “What has changed is that many more non-Western countries are now participating in these studies, enabling much better cross-cultural analysis.”
The new study also contradicted an idea proposed by Steven Levitt, author of “Freakonomics,” who states that gender inequity does not affect girls’ math performance in Muslim countries, where most students attend single-sex schools.
By examining the data in detail, the Wisconsin researchers saw other factors at work. “The girls living in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Bahrain and Oman, had, in fact, not scored very well, but their boys had scored even worse, a result found to be unrelated to either Muslim culture or schooling in single-gender classrooms,” said Kane.
He suggests that Bahraini boys may have low math scores because many attend religious schools where math is not emphasized in the curriculum. The researchers also noted that some low-performing girls drop out of school, making the tested sample of eighth graders unrepresentative of the whole population.
“For these reasons, we believe it is much more reasonable to attribute differences in math performance primarily to country-specific social factors,” Kane said.
To measure the status of females to males in each country, the researchers relied on a gender-gap index, which compares the genders in terms of income, education, health and political participation. Relating these to math scores, they concluded that math achievement at the low, average and high end for both boys and girls tends to be higher in countries where gender equity is better. In addition, in wealthier countries, women’s participation in the paid labor force was the main factor linked to higher math scores for both genders.
“We found that boys — as well as girls — tend to do better in math when raised in countries where females have better equality, and that’s new and important,” said Kane. “It makes sense that when women are well-educated and earn a good income, the math scores of their children of both genders benefit.”
“Many folks believe gender equity is a win-lose zero-sum game: If females are given more, males end up with less,” Kane said. “Our results indicate that, at least for math achievement, gender equity is a win-win situation.”
U.S. students ranked 31st on the 2009 Programme in International Student Assessment, below most Western and East-Asian countries. One proposed solution, creating single-sex classrooms, is not supported by the data, the researchers note. Instead, Mertz and Kane recommend increasing the number of math-certified teachers in middle and high schools, decreasing the number of children living in poverty, and ensuring gender equality.
“These changes would help give all children an optimal chance to succeed,” said Mertz. “This is not a matter of biology: None of our findings suggest that an innate biological difference between the sexes is the primary reason for a gender gap in math performance at any level. Rather, these major international studies strongly suggest that the math-gender gap, where it occurs, is due to sociocultural factors that differ among countries, and that these factors can be changed.”
The findings were published Dec. 12 in Notices of the American Mathematical Society.
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison