Culture, not biology, underpins math gender gap

June 1, 2009

For more than a century, the notion that females are innately less capable than males at doing mathematics, especially at the highest levels, has persisted in even the loftiest circles.

This was one of the primary reasons posited in 2005 by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University and current economic adviser to President Barack Obama, for the extreme scarcity of tenured women professors in top-ranked research universities in the U.S.

Now, however, in an analysis of contemporary data published today (June 1) in the , researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison report that the primary cause for the gender disparity in math performance at all levels is culture, not biology.

"It's not an innate difference in math ability between males and females," says Janet Mertz, a UW-Madison professor of oncology and one of the authors of the article that analyzes and summarizes recent data on math performance at all levels in the and internationally. "There are countries where the gender disparity in math performance doesn't exist at either the average or gifted level. These tend to be the same countries that have the greatest gender equality."

In the new PNAS report, Mertz and UW-Madison professor of psychology Janet Hyde set out to answer three key questions: Do gender differences in math performance exist in the general population? Do exist among the mathematically talented? Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent? The answers, according to the Wisconsin researchers, are no, no and yes.

Using disparate but complimentary sources of data — ranging from state standardized tests used to assess student performance under the No Child Left Behind Act to the transnational Programme for International Student Assessment to the elite International Mathematical Olympiad — the Wisconsin researchers document a pattern of performance that strongly suggests that the root of gender disparity in math can be pegged to changeable sociocultural factors. Such factors either discourage or encourage girls and young women in the pursuit of the skills required to master the mathematical sciences.

In the United States, girls at all grade levels now perform on a par with boys on the standardized mathematics tests required of all students. Moreover, U.S. girls are now taking calculus in high school at the same rate as boys, and the percentage of U.S. doctorates in the mathematical sciences awarded to women has climbed to 30 percent in the 21st century, up from a nadir of 5 percent in the 1950s.

Among the mathematically gifted, there are still more boys being identified than girls in the U.S., but the gap is narrowing and will likely continue to close as broader issues of gender inequity are addressed in American society. "On average, girls have reached parity with boys in the United States and some other countries, and the gender gap at the high end is closing," says Hyde.

In their report, Mertz and Hyde challenge the validity of the greater male variability hypothesis, invoked by Summers, which says that males are biologically more variable than females in math ability, thus accounting for why more males are found with very high math skills.

Contradicting this assertion, the Wisconsin researchers show that girls' math scores are as variable as boys' in some countries and among some ethnic groups in the U.S., with as many girls as boys scoring above the 99th percentile in some cultures. Thus, greater male variability in math performance is not a ubiquitous phenomenon. Rather, Hyde and Mertz report that the ratio of girls to boys excelling in math correlates quite well with measures of a country's gender equity.

"If you provide females with more educational opportunities and more job opportunities in fields that require advanced knowledge of math, you're going to find more women learning and performing very well in mathematics," says Mertz.

"U.S. culture instills in students the belief that math talent is innate; if one is not naturally good at math, there is little one can do to become good at it," Mertz adds. "In some other countries, people more highly value mathematics and view math performance as being largely related to effort."

The difference in attitude is likely a major reason the median scores of girls as well as boys in some East Asian countries are higher than the top 10 percent of both boys and girls in the U.S. on standardized transnational math tests. Children of immigrants from these countries, girls as well as boys, tend to excel in math even while being raised and educated in the U.S.

While the gender gap in math performance seems to be narrowing, Hyde and Mertz caution that the United States may fall further behind other nations in math performance as tests mandated by No Child Left Behind include almost no questions requiring complex problem-solving.

"This neglect of problem-solving skills could place U.S. students at a disadvantage compared with their peers in countries where teaching and tests emphasize more challenging content," write Hyde and Mertz.

Finally, the Wisconsin researchers note that the future of the U.S. economy depends upon American society doing a better job of identifying and nurturing mathematically talented youth, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity: "The United States could do a lot better," says Hyde.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison (news : web)

Explore further: Gender gap in math confidence is studied

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1 / 5 (3) Jun 01, 2009
dont know as if i buy this being as there are brain scans that prove male dominance in the area of the brain associated with mathematics, sciences, and other aptitudes that in common "knowledge" say guys are better than girls, or girls are better than guys....
and the female brain scans showed areas of higher activity then mens in areas known to be womens nitches.

The brain scans can't lie, and both of these cannot be true. Brain scans indicate there IS a biological reason and it is NOT cultural.

The research I speak of is posted on this site btw....
not rated yet Jun 01, 2009
@ LuckyBrandon, perhaps the areas shown in the scans are simply more developed in the relevant gender because of usage levels?
1 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2009
thats a very good point, i suppose that could be possible. but from what i recall, basically the men and woman were given a series of math, science, homemaker, etc. types of questions, and the same ones, and the men consistently activated the portion of the brain more for figuring out math. That would lead me to think that its likely its due to better cognitive functions in specific areas of the brain. Evolutionarily speaking, it would make perfect sense. But I do suppose that if a man and a woman used different skills their entire life in regards to these areas, that may well be possible.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 02, 2009
In the late 1990s MIT performed research in-house to study why there were fewer tenured female professors/researchers than males. To their surprise, they found that discrimination socially of females in traditional male dominated sciences existed despite more cultural/acadmenic sophistication. It documented with clarity that females had more difficulty obtaining grants, time was constrained, access to meetings formal and informal were limited and even funding for supplies more limited. MIT found discrimination takes many forms that are not always blatantly apparent. The researchers were surprised and were not comprised of women.

The conclusion was that females that should have been highly valued because of their fewer numbers were instead marginalized, their path towards tenured status more difficult than those of their male counterparts and once tenured, paths towards advancement presented further obstacles in gaining board positions, research in their areas of expertise, even in obtaining research grants.

Males and females do have difference in how they function cognitively; but, it does not mean there are short-comings which prevent women from being valuable participants in every field of science including mathematics. We are all individuals with strengths and weaknesses that cannot be peg-holed easily. However, the attitudes that women cannot function in technical areas because of mental deficiencies are false.

Other studies indicate there are discriminatory factors at grade school and secondary school levels present and revealed in other studies. For example, in Algebra classes, males are called on by a factor of 50% more than females when hands are raised.

Socially, men are more territorial than females are, they naturally more aggressive in gaining and defending their 'turf' be it in academia, sports, politics or business settings, etc. This means they are less likely to cooperate, share information and enable others to succeed to ensure their own success. Women are more likely to share information, create synergistic teams and conduct their roles more openly.

Peg-holing is not helpful, clearly there are attitudes which still exist that challenge women in obtuse ways. In society today, it is clear by pay parity and even particular forms of investments not open to married women. Even today, women have not achieved pay parity with their male counterparts in the same jobs. Women make up more than 50% of the nation's population but the percentage of representatives in government do not reflect that. We still have miles to go in bringing down societal and attitudinal barriers that recognize women as fully capable, sentient and intellectually valuable HUMANS.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2009
I don't think there is much debate that male and female brains handle complex math tasks differently. But that would not necessarily make either uniformly outperform the other in every respect. Likely tradeoffs. My personal experience was that all the female Ph.D. I knew in math or computer science had extensive dance or gymnastics when they were quite young. Thus, it would not be the cultural variable of gender-neutral "opportunity" post-education that matters (which sounds like feminist cant), but the cultural variable of how much coordinated, complex, cross-patterned movement the child performs under six. In my experience, boys do this spontaneously, whereas girls generally require an organized activity (such as dance or gymnastics) to reach the same level. Although anecdotal to be sure, based on these observations, we emphasized early dance and gymnastics for our daughter--she now scores honours in national and international math contests to the third standard deviation.

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