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?

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks

91 comments

Jeanne R
Jeanne R3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne R3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne R3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne R3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne R3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Holly B.
Holly B.5 years ago

good article thanks

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Mary M.
Mary M5 years ago

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.

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LM Sunshine

thank you for article.

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Laalamani N.
Laalamani N5 years ago

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!

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