Science Scene: Gender gap in mathematics a harmful myth

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Walking into a math department is like walking into a boys’ club. Many in the field offer explanations for why this is, which range mostly from the offensive to the extremely offensive. Whether pointed out blatantly or left unsaid, the reasons mostly center around the assumption that women just aren’t as good at math as men.

Unfortunately for these amateur sociologists, the data doesn’t support the hypothesis: The gender gap in mathematics is a myth.

Taking an average of the results of 441 studies, which comprised more than 1 million subjects, a meta-analysis from 2010 found that the difference between the average male score and the average female score on a standardized math test is meaningless, with males leading by a mere 10 percent of one standard deviation in this country.

Another study, released in 2008, compared nine different predictors of mathematical performance at age 10, and the effect of gender came in dead last behind birth weight, preschool and socioeconomic status. In other words, saying that someone can’t do math because she’s female is less reasonable than saying someone can’t do math because he only weighed 5 pounds at birth.

Another popular idea is that, though men and women score around the same on average, there are more male students performing at very high levels as well as very low levels, and the two groups cancel each other out. Again, this is not supported by the data, which shows that the variance in the two groups is more or less equal.

With that in mind, the devil’s in the details and there are still some details that are troubling.

Even though the mathematical gender gap is nonexistent through elementary and middle school, it starts to develop in high school forming a more worrisome, albeit still minor, 23 percent of a standard deviation. This may have something to do with the fact that the male high school drop-out rate is higher than the female drop-out rate. The gap becomes more significant in higher performing groups, and while female students tend to do as well or better in computation, males move ahead — again by minute amounts — in complex problem solving.

Nationality plays a significant role, too. The worldwide gap is actually even narrower than it is in the United States. Countries that score better on gender equality assessments tend to have less significant nationality gaps than those that don’t, with the exception of some in the Middle Eastern region, which have very narrow gaps but significant gender inequality. The reasons aren’t fully understood but may relate to education taking place in single-sex classrooms.

These effects are too small to be meaningful, at least in the United States and most of the rest of the first world, but they are measurable and they demand explanation. And while they may not provide a full answer, it does look like our culture and stereotypes are good places to start looking.

An experiment performed at Harvard gives an idea of how powerful these influences can be. For the experiment, researchers gave Asian-American girls a math test. But before taking the test, the subjects filled out a questionnaire. A third of them received questions such as “Do your parents or grandparents speak any language other than English?” designed to trigger their Asian identities. Another third received questions such as “Do you live on a co-ed or single-sex floor?” intended to focus attention on their female identity. The final third was the control group that received questions unrelated to either identity.

Asians are stereotyped as being good at math whereas women are not and researchers wanted to know if this could potentially influence test scores. It can and it did. In this random sample of Asian-American girls, the Asian-primed group scored higher than the female-primed group scored lower but both scored lower than the control.

Now put this into the context of the society we live in where surveys reveal that even from a young age, children assume men are better at math than women, parents state that the IQs of their sons on average are higher than that of their daughters and teachers consider the abilities of their male students to be superior to that of their female students.

And with all those societal influences and expectations, there’s still barely a measurable difference between male and female math scores.

Are girls bad at math? Maybe, but no worse than the boys who continue to promulgate the myth of a mathematical gender gap.