Gender gap disappears in school math competitions, study shows

Feb 25, 2013
A new study shows that girls compete evenly with boys after the opening round of math competitions. Credit: Mark Philbrick/BYU

The idea that boys are better at math and in competitions has persisted for a long time, and now we know why: Nobody bothered to schedule the rematch.

Most school math contests are one-shot events where girls underperform relative to their male classmates. But a new study by a Brigham Young University economist presents a different picture.

Twenty-four local elementary schools changed the format to go across five different rounds. Once the first round was over, girls performed as well or better than for the rest of the contest.

"It's really encouraging that seemingly large gaps disappear just by keeping them in the game longer," said BYU economics professor Joe Price.

Price co-authored the study with the University of Miami's Christopher Cotton and Rutgers' Frank McIntyre. Their report is published by the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

In the contest, students were paired against a classmate to see who got the most questions right during a 5-minute quiz. In case of a tie, the student who finished first won. The winner earned raffle tickets for a small prize.

Because the schools shared past test scores with the researchers, they could compare how similarly talented boys and girls performed. Even though these matches look even on paper, for some reason boys have the edge when it's the first foray into a competitive setting. On a test worth ten points, it usually amounts to a one-point edge for boys in the initial round.

"We don't know if it's boys getting excited and over-performing or if it's girls being too uncomfortable with the situation," Price said.

But here's another twist: Six classrooms de-emphasized the speed component. Ties weren't decided by who finished first. And though there was still just five minutes on the clock, the students were told, "It's not a race."

With those two small adjustments, girls competed evenly with boys from the start. BYU math professor Jessica Purcell, who was not involved with the study, wasn't surprised that the format adjustments resulted in more parity.

"In mathematical settings without time pressure or competition, such as classes I have taught or classes I have taken, males and females seem to do equally well," said Purcell, a recipient of the prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship.

Since boys' competitive advantage is so short-lived, the study authors suggest that a little encouragement could go a long way.

"What motivated us was how to get girls to thrive in a competitive environment," said Price, noting that he has two daughters. "You might guess that would shy away from competitive work environments. What our results would hint is that if you convince them to stick around and give it a shot, they will acclimate and do just fine."

Explore further: Local education politics 'far from dead'

Related Stories

Keep boys and girls together, research suggests

Apr 11, 2008

Boys and girls may learn differently, but American parents should think twice before moving their children to sex-segregated schools. A new Tel Aviv University study has found that girls improve boys’ grades markedly at ...

Do co-ed classrooms optimize learning?

Oct 01, 2012

(Phys.org)—Do students behave and perform better when only in class with peers of the same sex? A recent study done by University of Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky reveals clues about the potential of same-sex classes.

Girls' verbal skills make them better at arithmetic

Feb 23, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- While boys generally do better than girls in science and math, some studies have found that girls do better in arithmetic. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Ps ...

Both boys and girls negatively affected by sexual harassment

May 12, 2008

A new study in Psychology of Women Quarterly explored the outcomes of sexual harassment on both boys and girls. While girls were harassed more frequently, boys were indirectly yet negatively affected through a school climat ...

Recommended for you

Local education politics 'far from dead'

8 hours ago

Teach for America, known for recruiting teachers, is also setting its sights on capturing school board seats across the nation. Surprisingly, however, political candidates from the program aren't just pushing ...

First grade reading suffers in segregated schools

8 hours ago

A groundbreaking study from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) has found that African-American students in first grade experience smaller gains in reading when they attend segregated schools—but the ...

Why aren't consumers buying remanufactured products?

11 hours ago

Firms looking to increase market share of remanufactured consumer products will have to overcome a big barrier to do so, according to a recent study from the Penn State Smeal College of Business. Findings from faculty members ...

Expecting to teach enhances learning, recall

11 hours ago

People learn better and recall more when given the impression that they will soon have to teach newly acquired material to someone else, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

Understanding the economics of human trafficking

Jul 28, 2014

Although Europe is one of the strictest regions in the world when it comes to guaranteeing the respect of human rights, the number of people trafficked to or within the EU still amounts to several hundred ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

FrankHerbertWhines
3.8 / 5 (4) Feb 25, 2013
seems just as likely that removing the competitive element reduced the boys effort.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (1) Feb 25, 2013
Supposing the country has 600 math talented girls and 2300 math talented girls, it's not so difficult to choose one hundred children from both groups, because the math ability gets equalized at the highest levels. But it still doesn't eliminate gender disparity at the wider statistical level. Anyway, the better math talent for boys is western countries specific, in Malaysia the girls are better than guys even at the elementary school level.