Study debunks myths about gender and math performance

December 12, 2011, University of Wisconsin-Madison

A major study of recent international data on school mathematics performance casts doubt on some common assumptions about gender and math achievement — in particular, the idea that girls and women have less ability due to 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," says Janet Mertz, senior author of the study and a professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Instead, the Wisconsin researchers linked differences in math performance to social and cultural factors.

The new study, by Mertz and Jonathan Kane, a professor of mathematical and computer sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, was published today (Dec. 12, 2011) in Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The study looked at data from 86 countries, which the authors used to test the "greater male variability hypothesis" famously expounded in 2005 by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, as the primary reason for the scarcity of outstanding women mathematicians.

That hypothesis holds that males diverge more from the mean at both ends of the spectrum and, hence, are more represented in the highest-performing sector. But, using the international data, the Wisconsin authors observed that greater male variation in is not present in some countries, and is mostly due to boys with low scores in some other countries, indicating that it relates much 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 Wisconsin study also debunked the idea proposed by Steven Levitt of "Freakonomics" fame that gender inequity does not hamper girls' math performance in Muslim countries, where most students attend single-sex schools. Levitt claimed to have disproved a prior conclusion of others that gender inequity limits girls' mathematics performance. He suggested, instead, that Muslim culture or single-sex classrooms benefit girls' ability to learn mathematics.

By examining the data in detail, the Wisconsin authors noted 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," says Kane.

He suggests that Bahraini boys may have low average because some attend religious schools whose curricula include little mathematics. Also, 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 says.

To measure the status of females relative to males within each country, the authors relied on a gender-gap index, which compares the genders in terms of income, education, health and political participation. Relating these indices 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 and salary 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," says 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."

Mertz adds, "Many folks believe gender equity is a win-lose zero-sum game: If females are given more, males end up with less. Our results indicate that, at least for math achievement, gender equity is a win-win situation."

U.S. students ranked only 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. 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," says 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 gap in 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."

Explore further: Culture, not biology, underpins math gender gap

Related Stories

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.

Bridging the math gender gap

May 29, 2008

The gender gap in math perceived to exist between girls and boys has long been contested. New research published in the journal Science sheds clarity on the debate and demonstrates that girls perform better in mathematics ...

Worldwide study finds few gender differences in math abilities

January 5, 2010

Girls around the world are not worse at math than boys, even though boys are more confident in their math abilities, and girls from countries where gender equity is more prevalent are more likely to perform better on mathematics ...

Recommended for you

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Dec 12, 2011
In my country, J Banks introduced the idea of chartered schools (privately run schools; government funded) as the answer to a cultural deficiency (partially defined in this article).

seems there's a suggestion that by shifting a delivery method, one shifts the cultural dependance.

In rare cases, youngsters with poverty (both cultural and financial)derived expectation can be influenced by delivery methods (especially where it replaces the cultural imprinting, or imparts a seed to build anew), but a few of the teachers are questioning the effectiveness of such an approach as the general anesthetic in a failing socioeconomic group.

I'm in favor of increasing value. as this article outlines, there is a high correlation that can't be ignored. And its hard to know if Bankseys proposal does that, since its rather sketchy on details.

A more direct approach is to directly influence the cultural makeup. Bottom line is; schools are such a low priority in the socioeconomically deprived
1 / 5 (8) Dec 12, 2011
The general lack of female (and black people) programmers in private companies indicates clearly, these groups don't incline to activities, which require just the skills, which the mathematicians use often in their work. Of course there exists a cultural bias too, but we cannot deny the general lack of motivation to the technical and abstract sciences between girls. And the motivation is nearly as important here, as the physical skills in order to do some work effectively.

Arthur Schopenhauer: "The people can do what they want but they cannot want what they want"
not rated yet Dec 12, 2011
The article looks as if it is open access.

Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance
Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz
1 / 5 (5) Dec 12, 2011
In this context it's interesting, at the countries with higher concentration of bisexuals and hermaphrodites (Philippines, Thailand) the gender difference in math ability is least pronounced. http://en.wikiped...'afafine
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 13, 2011
Any actual difference would most likely be explained as a result of the effect the society has on the gender in general. Societies are most certainly capable of systematically discriminating against a gender and this most certainly can mess them up en masse.

Mary Wollstonecraft even questioned the average woman's ability to raise children, not because they are naturally inferior but because of the lack of education and lack of self-purpose society inflicted upon the. ( http://en.wikiped...of_Woman )

There are differences in the physical abilities between men and women. I highly doubt there are any intrinsic differences in intelligence.
Stefan Karpinski
not rated yet Dec 14, 2011
It's difficult to fathom how the authors interpret the data on page 14 as *not* supporting the hypothesis that there is a male/female variance ratio of about 1.1. Figure 1A is a bell-like curve which is clearly centered around 1.1. In Figure 1B, almost all of the points are below the 1:1 line, whereas if you plot a 1.1:1 line, its a perfect fit for the data. In Figure 1C, the x value where the regression line intersects a zero gender gap (i.e. no evidence of cultural bias), is at a variance ratio of about 1.1. All of the evidence the authors present points to an underlying variance ratio near 1.1, yet somehow they conclude the opposite.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2011
r u a waste of of my time stefan?

the following statement sets up the premise for interpreting the data.

"If gender differences in means and variances are primarily a consequence of innate, biologically determined differences between the sexes, one would expect these differences to be similar among countries regardless of their culture..."

The authors sited studies that illustrated both low and high GGI performance correlations both supported and discounted sociocultural.

The most outstanding of these were "Fryer and Levitt ([14]) and Ellison and Swanson ([10])" which show that in a low GGI rating muslim based cultures, 8 grade girls out performed boys.

obviously evidence that strongly supports sociocultural... this is also strong evidence that receptive qualities (in this case I'll go as bold to partially define it as; cultural imprint of submissive strongly communicated and understood female identity that maintains a receptive mind) produces a person that is easily taught
1 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2011
Oh and look, someone was kind enough to rate my first post.

Fact is, Just yesterday, Fontera has promised to delivery free milk every morning to N Z primary decile 1 schools. "Props!"

They site a number of influences, including

the anti big business movement, "props to ABBM guys!"
rebuilding their reputation after the China babymilk scandal
A direct a positive change to influence the economically deprived.


The fact is, USA big business needed a bailout ( a socialist save).

...France and Germany are spear heading Euro zone reforms (socialist saves).

to save their respective and associated economies.

will the debt be repaid? or paid forward?
1 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2011
The Ancient and well understood Maori proverb that is circulated on EVERY marae...

he aha te mea mui o tenei ao? he tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

What is the most important thing is this world? it is the people, the people, the people.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.