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Girls Can Do Math Just Fine, Thanks

Girls Can Do Math Just Fine, Thanks

It’s been a long-running myth that girls tend to be better readers and writers, while boys tend to be better at math and science. What’s interesting is that over time, this apparent statistical difference in ability has slowly been pushed back. Once upon a time, it was pronounced that women were incapable of learning even basic math from the get-go. Much more recently, I read a news article on the subject as a university student in the 2000s, which stated that gender differences in academic performance started to manifest around middle school, possibly due to puberty (with boys and girls performing equally up to that point). Now that it manifests even later, that theory is out.

At each stage, a plausible biological explanation has been offered up for differences in performance by gender, but this explanation has continually changed as female and male abilities have been shown to be equal at later and later stages of development. The final nail in the coffin has been hammered in by this study from the American Mathematical Society, with the no-nonsense title “Debunking Myths About Gender and Mathematics Performance.”

In it, researchers Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz take the readers through a quick survey of past hypotheses on the gender gap in mathematics/science performance, summarizing previous data before presenting their own wide-reaching survey, comparing standardized mathematics scores from several different years, for several different age groups and in some 31 different countries. The results completely explode biological explanations which, if not favored the last decade or so, have at least remained marginally plausible until now.

Which isn’t to say that the gender gap has now disappeared. Kane and Mertz have discovered that some countries have differences in the mean performance of boys versus the mean performance of girls, with sometimes boys doing better on average and sometimes girls doing better.

In other cases, like the United States, mean performance (which had a significant gender gap in the 1970s) is now equal. However, there is a difference in variability. Essentially what this means is that while boys and girls have the same average performance, there is a far greater range in ability for boys than girls. There are more boys performing at the highest level of mathematics competency (and at the lowest level) than girls, which means there are more male mathematicians, physicists, engineers, etc.

But gender variability, too, has been shown to vary from country to country, where in some cases the girls have greater range in their performance, and in others, both variability and mean performance are very similar across genders. While it’s been accepted for a number of years that girls are indeed just as good as boys on average, this is the first time clear statistical evidence has shown that an equal proportion of girls is capable of performing at the highest levels as boys. In other words, the current gender imbalance in university engineering, mathematics, and physical science departments, and in the field, is entirely a social phenomenon.

The question now is: how much longer will it be before we’ve finally fixed it?

Related Stories:

The Myth of the “Girl Brain”

Girls to Lego: What the Heck Were You Thinking?

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks

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85 comments

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11:15AM PST on Feb 5, 2012

good article thanks

7:32AM PST on Feb 5, 2012

In grade school boys tended to be more interested in goofing off than girls were. All the boys wanted to do was joke and play. Teachers had a harder time getting the boys to focus. Girls seemed to excell and do better. It has to be said, and this is important - it also depends on the teacher. Teachers that do not know "how" to teach are a hindrance. I know first hand. In High School the math teacher we had in 1st year said, "I told you that before." and would never go back and review. She also said, "well I'll be at the beach this summer, while you'll be in summer school." Sure enough most of us were because of her poor teaching of Business Math. Now comes 2nd year - the feared "Algebra"! Guess what? It was so much interesting because this teacher knew how to teach, not "show" us. I went from failing Bus. Math, to getting a 98 on the Algebra Regents. We had a H.S. reunion a few years late (maybe 10th), the "Show" teacher was no longer teaching math, she was teaching a cooking class in a public school. I guess finally parents and/or her results in students' scores made the principal let her go. I don't remember many of my test results except for that Algebra regents and thankful to that teacher for being a good teacher. Oh, this was in an all girls H.S. - topic was on boys/girls mental ability to learn math.

7:51PM PST on Feb 2, 2012

thank you for article.

7:59AM PST on Jan 24, 2012

Try telling that to Simon Baron-Cohen, who gets to be a professor at Cambridge despite spouting even more extreme theories on "male brains" and "female brains" than many men in his parents' generation probably. According to him, the male brain is (surprise!!) rational and the female is emotional, and he just isn't aware that this is NOT a new theory.
Hooray for scientists such as those mentioned in this article who provide the antidote to such venom!

1:33AM PST on Jan 20, 2012

A lot depends on the teaching.

11:03AM PST on Jan 19, 2012

I think Kevin must be reading my mind. I am a teacher. Our brains ARE different. So, too are our social expectation. The only way to remedy these issues in education, is to put males and females in separate classrooms, on the same campus. Separate, yet equal. That's handling things from the bottom up. Then, as far as teachers, they need more autonomy. There's a great article also on this site that's called "four reasons finland's schools..." well, 4 things we can learn from Finland to account for the socio-economic disparity, then we can TOP Finland, by segregating our classrooms. As a student myself, teacher, mom, classroom volunteer...I have seen time and again, the "materials" issue with boys. I don't know WHAT it is, but, frankly girls don't want to use crayons boys have stuck in their ears, butt, nose...geez you name it. they don't want to use the paint the boys have mucked up even AFTER the teacher took the time to instruct how to use the paint before she let them use it. We don't want to use your books with the penis drawn on, and the cuss words added...really...we don't!!! It is NOT funny!

11:46AM PST on Jan 18, 2012

Read my entire comment here: http://sandbars.org/women_in_stem_comment.htm

11:36AM PST on Jan 18, 2012

There is no doubt in my mind that as a male involved in STEM that females can be capable of performing STEM. Growing up as a male in a religious-based private elementary school, I was surrounded exclusively by female teachers and a large number of female students. But even in that in environment, you get the sense that women might not want to pursue careers like that, excluding any sense of workplace environment stigma.

However, I am currently seeing radical approaches in an attempt to force women into STEM roles in the media that end up shifting the focus from actually learning to an artificial learning experiment in public schools that I cannot find myself supportive of. Co-ed education has both benefits and pitfalls, but segregated education solves these kinds of problems automatically.

This is a little off topic, but I find that the current poor economic status of the United States makes people a little ruthless in their judgement of competition for waged jobs, and that includes men versus women in an industry. And at the same time, you hear about so many kids dropping out of school, or not performing up to par versus their grade level. How can it be that there are so few positions available even while the majority of potential competition isn't even attaining white-collar job procurer status? If all of these failed students could magically be reformed, would we see pandemonium in the job market, or would we see more jobs available due to more lively entrepren

8:29AM PST on Jan 17, 2012

This article title is sexist to me! I work in a male-dominated science field and it was a bumpy road -which I knew it would be - and females need reinforcement and acceptance .. this is the same to me as saying *keep her pregnant and barefoot* ..

4:51AM PST on Jan 17, 2012

Thanks for the post

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