Study: No gender differences in math performance

Jul 24, 2008

We've all heard it. Many of us in fact believe it. Girls just aren't as good at math as boys. But is it true? After sifting through mountains of data - including SAT results and math scores from 7 million students who were tested in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act - a team of scientists says the answer is no. Whether they looked at average performance, the scores of the most gifted children or students' ability to solve complex math problems, girls measured up to boys.

"There just aren't gender differences anymore in math performance," says University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Janet Hyde, the study's leader. "So parents and teachers need to revise their thoughts about this."

The UW-Madison and University of California, Berkeley, researchers report their findings in the July 25 issue of Science.

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 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.

Cultural beliefs like this are "incredibly influential," she says, 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."

To carry out its query, the team acquired 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 statistic that reports the degree of difference between girls' and boys' average math scores in standardized units.

The effect sizes they found - ranging from 0.01 and 0.06 - 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," says Hyde. "But when you average them all, you essentially get no difference."

Some critics argue, however, that even when average performance is equal, gender discrepancies may still exist at the highest levels of mathematical ability. So the team searched for those, as well. 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."

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."

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."

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Explore further: Researchers help Boston Marathon organizers plan for 2014 race

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study challenges claims of single-sex schooling benefits

Feb 03, 2014

As many American public school districts adopt single-sex classrooms and even entire schools, a new study finds scant evidence that they offer educational or social benefits. The study was the largest and most thorough effort ...

Probing Question: Are boys really better at math than girls?

May 20, 2010

In 1992, Mattel sparked a nationwide debate about math and gender when the company released "Teen Talk Barbie." Among the doll’s 270 phrases were "Math class is tough!" (often misquoted as "Math is hard"), along with "Will ...

Could playing 'boys' games help girls in science and math?

Apr 04, 2013

The observation that males appear to be superior to females in some fields of academic study has prompted a wealth of research hoping to shed light on whether this is attributable to nature or nurture. Although there is no ...

Recommended for you

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

6 hours ago

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

jscroft
2.5 / 5 (2) Jul 24, 2008
I recall a few weeks ago that an article attributed M/F differences in IQ test results to gender differences in average brain size. I wonder if the researchers in this study controlled for brain size?
D666
5 / 5 (3) Jul 24, 2008
There are a number of "stereotyped" claims about differences in ability between males and females, including math, spacial ability, language, etc. Sometimes it feels like the studies are working overtime to show that the ones favoring males are BS, but the ones favoring females are Just Fine.
RAL
5 / 5 (1) Jul 25, 2008
Sounds like a desperate attempt to explain away inconvenient results by Hyde et alia. She says that a greater number of girls than boys are now being SAT tested so that brings the girls scores down. But it wasn't that long ago that more boys than girls went to college. Wouldn't the same argument apply? Yet, unless I'm mistaken, boys still scored higher on math.

I want to encourage both boys and girls to learn math and science. This kind of intellectual dishonesty to explain away inconvenient results is neither math, nor science, but political correctness run amok.
jscroft
3 / 5 (2) Jul 26, 2008
Here it is: http://www.physor...625.html

The point is that observed differences in "intelligence" between males & females appear to be primarily a function of relative brain size. While I realize that "intelligence" isn't the same thing as "math skills," I do wonder whether the parity discovered in this study might not simply reflect the fact that the kids in the study were young enough that the typical gross male-female morphological distinctions (including the fact that men are generally bigger than women) had not yet manifested themselves.

And NO, I'm not suggesting that men are smarter than women because they're bigger. All I'm pointing out is that, according to the study referenced above, ladies with big heads might average out to be marginally smarter than pin-headed men--and vice versa--and that this effect might have proved a controlling hidden factor in THIS study if the researchers didn't account for it.

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.