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?
Photo credit: woodleywonderworks