Girls Vs. Boys at Math

  by  |  September 10th, 2009  |  Published in All, Brain & Psychology, Featured


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Are men naturally better at math than women or is that just an out-dated stereotype? When former Harvard president Larry Summers said publicly in 2005 that men are innately better at math, many women were outraged. So a couple of women scientists decided to research it. This ScienCentral News video explains their report published this week.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewees: Iris Xu, Sally Wolfe, Madison, WI
and Janet Hyde, Janet Mertz,
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Produced by Joyce Gramza– Edited by Chris
Bergendorff Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc

"I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong."

That disclaimer didn’t keep then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers, the current Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economics Council, from sparking a firestorm of controversy with his 2005 take on the reasons for women’s under representation in math and science leadership.

But it did lead some researchers to take up the challenge of proving or disproving Summers’ contention that inherent differences in ability might be more important than discrimination or stereotyping in accounting for the gender gap.

University of Wisconsin-Madison psychiatry professor Janet Hyde and her colleague, oncology professor Janet Mertz say their research documenting female ability at the highest levels of mathematical performance was directly "inspired" by Summers.

Also on ScienCentral

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers specifically targeted the "greater male variability hypothesis" invoked by Summers as evidence of possible innate differences in male and female math ability.

Simply put, it means that if you look at a standard bell curve distribution of male and female math scores, males and females are equally represented at average scores—the top of the curve. But at the ends, or "tails" of the curve, representing both extremely low and extremely high performance, males far outnumber females.

While Summers suggested that this is evidence of some innate difference between the genders, Hyde and Mertz show that a failure to identify and nurture girls with extreme math talent is the much more likely culprit.

Gaps Closing

The researchers gathered and analyzed data on gender and mathematical performance around the world. They found that, indeed, there is no longer a gender gap in average math performance.

Unfiltered
Read Joyce Gramza’s personal thoughts on reporting and producing this
story, in Unfiltered:
Girls Vs. Boys At Math

"In the United States, girls have reached parity with boys in math performance at all grade levels through high school," says Hyde. "A lot of people believe the girls aren’t as good, but they actually are doing just as well."

But, proceeding into the area where Summers’ remarks tread, the researchers also studied "high-end" talent— the far right tail of the bell.

They showed that among those they call "talented—scoring at the 95 or 99th percentile, there has been a gender gap with more boys than girls scoring above those cutoffs," Hyde says. However, they also showed that this gender gap has been narrowing over time.

"That’s an important finding because it indicates that culture is probably the major source of this gender gap in high-end performance," she says. "If it’s closing over time, it’s certainly not biological. If it’s not found consistently in all nations, it’s hard to believe that it’s biological."

In addition, Mertz, whose son is ranked among the "highly gifted… those who have talents in the one-in-a-million range," has been documenting girls’ progress in that category.

"It’s been known that there have been some women who have excelled in mathematics throughout the centuries, but the studies I’ve been doing were among the first to identify dozens and dozens of these girls in various countries throughout the world," Mertz says.

Mertz showed that even at that high level, the gender gap is narrowing.

Excellence and Equity

What’s more, she showed that math excellence in females correlates well with measures of gender equality. "This is true both at the 99th percentile, and at the extreme one-in-a-million level, where you see more girls being identified when the countries have greater equity in terms of educational opportunities, in terms of employment opportunities," Mertz says.

"Which sort of makes sense," she adds. "If you provide good employment opportunities for women in these fields, they’re more likely to be encouraged to want to excel and learn the material really well so they can get those good jobs."

While Hyde and Mertz are encouraged by their findings, they say more needs to be done to encourage girls to do math, especially in the US.

Mertz points out that the US ranked 31st out of 128 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest international study of educational, economic, health and political gender equity. The top three were Sweden, Norway and Finland.

"So the U.S. has a long way to go in gender equity. Presumably, if we had more gender equity, we would also be identifying more of these girls with exceptional math talent," she says.

This research is published in PNAS early online edition the week of June 1 – June 5, 2009, and was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Elsewhere on the Web:

Young Women Win Top Honors at World’s Largest Pre-College Science Competition

"The Gender Similarities Hypothesis," by Janet Hyde

Girls Math & Science Partnership

‘Women Faring Well in Hiring’ -Report from National Academies


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Responses

  1. Unfiltered: Girls Vs. Boys At Math | ScienCentral | Science Videos | Science News says:

    June 1st, 2009 at 3:11 pm (#)

    [...] "Unfiltered" is a recurring series where ScienCentral reporters give their personal thoughts on the stories they produce. This installment is based on the news story "Girls Vs. Boys At Math." [...]

  2. T. Bagger says:

    June 10th, 2009 at 10:39 am (#)

    “…Hyde and Mertz show that a failure to identify and nurture girls with extreme math talent is the much more likely culprit”

    This statement does nothing to explain why girls would be under-represented at the low end of the curve. Is the suggestion that girls on the low end receive more “nurturing” than boys, resulting in the lower standard deviation?

  3. el fenemeno says:

    June 15th, 2009 at 8:30 am (#)

    i would say that women and men have both the same qualities.So i don’t think that men are better than women in maths,if you read the story of maths you will see that there are many women who make lot of work in this area.it’s true that women are the most of time in litteral area but that don’t mean they are ….

  4. SeventhGraderInAlgebraNamedPaula says:

    November 3rd, 2009 at 8:02 pm (#)

    OMFG! I think, personally, that the gender gap is because males have always gotten a good education, but women haven’t gotten the treatment they deserve; which is the same as guys. (Maybe even better :D ) And because girls haven’t had that much time to catch up to the guys, but are catching up quickly (at my school on average the girls are better than the guys in math) they are probably better than guys. I mean like there are horrible girls and horrible guys but like there are more ingenius girls than ingenius guys. I know like twenty girls (my age) who are like perfect with all A’s perfect attendance and all that and only two perfect guys… And the girls are pretty but the guys are like nerds!! :D

    But that’s just at my school.

  5. tg says:

    November 18th, 2009 at 6:13 am (#)

    While they made claims that the gap is diminishing at the highest levels 95th and 99th percentiles, they gave no numbers for the degree that the numbers may be converging. This is very suspect, especially for an article about math and quoting scholars. Give us the numbers please or even a link to the numbers. If you are going to make claims show us the data to back up your claims. Until then you look very suspect.

  6. WT SCHOOL?? says:

    December 14th, 2009 at 8:55 pm (#)

    My School Has more smarter girls i mean im all A”s and guys are alll C’s and people say girls are smarter than guys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. LMAO AT SCHOOL says:

    December 14th, 2009 at 8:56 pm (#)

    HAHAHHAHAHAAHH SCHOOL SHOULD GO AWAY!! HAHAHAH

  8. LMAO AT SCHOOL says:

    December 14th, 2009 at 8:57 pm (#)

    T. Bagger says:

    June 10th, 2009 at 10:39 am (#)

    “…Hyde and Mertz show that a failure to identify and nurture girls with extreme math talent is the much more likely culprit”

    This statement does nothing to explain why girls would be under-represented at the low end of the curve. Is the suggestion that girls on the low end receive more “nurturing” than boys, resulting in the lower standard deviation?

    el fenemeno says:

    June 15th, 2009 at 8:30 am (#)

    i would say that women and men have both the same qualities.So i don’t think that men are better than women in maths,if you read the story of maths you will see that there are many women who make lot of work in this area.it’s true that women are the most of time in litteral area but that don’t mean they are ….

    SeventhGraderInAlgebraNamedPaula says:

    November 3rd, 2009 at 8:02 pm (#)

    OMFG! I think, personally, that the gender gap is because males have always gotten a good education, but women haven’t gotten the treatment they deserve; which is the same as guys. (Maybe even better :D ) And because girls haven’t had that much time to catch up to the guys, but are catching up quickly (at my school on average the girls are better than the guys in math) they are probably better than guys. I mean like there are horrible girls and horrible guys but like there are more ingenius girls than ingenius guys. I know like twenty girls (my age) who are like perfect with all A’s perfect attendance and all that and only two perfect guys… And the girls are pretty but the guys are like nerds!!

    But that’s just at my school.

    tg says:

    November 18th, 2009 at 6:13 am (#)

    While they made claims that the gap is diminishing at the highest levels 95th and 99th percentiles, they gave no numbers for the degree that the numbers may be converging. This is very suspect, especially for an article about math and quoting scholars. Give us the numbers please or even a link to the numbers. If you are going to make claims show us the data to back up your claims. Until then you look very suspect.

    WT SCHOOL?? says:

    December 14th, 2009 at 8:55 pm (#)

    My School Has more smarter girls i mean im all A”s and guys are alll C’s and people say girls are smarter than guys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    LMAO AT SCHOOL says:

    December 14th, 2009 at 8:56 pm (#)

    HAHAHHAHAHAAHH SCHOOL SHOULD GO AWAY!! HAHAHAH

    MWAHAHAHHAH!!!!!!!

  9. Me says:

    March 12th, 2010 at 3:28 am (#)

    GIRLS DO WORSE in MATH simply because they are LAZY !

  10. MY SCHOOL says:

    May 4th, 2010 at 11:32 am (#)

    in my school there are about 5 girls that have a’s all the way and there are more smart guys than girls but most of the kids in general are exremely stupid!
    i get straight a’s and i am really not a nerd im more of a jock than a nerd actually..
    i work my ass off and i agree with “ME”.. everyone in my school especially the girls are lazy..

  11. Hello says:

    September 2nd, 2010 at 8:36 am (#)

    Is it coincidence that the article talks about boys vs girls and the article is sponsored by “PNAS”….lol

  12. gocellphone says:

    January 24th, 2011 at 12:26 am (#)

    Males have always gotten a good education, but women haven’t gotten the treatment they deserve; which is the same as guys. And because girls haven’t had that much time to catch up to the guys, but are catching up quickly (at my school on average the girls are better than the guys in math) they are probably better than guys. While they made claims that the gap is diminishing at the highest levels 95th and 99th percentiles, they gave no numbers for the degree that the numbers may be converging.

  13. pigggy eh???? says:

    March 8th, 2011 at 9:06 am (#)

    Why u no get vuitton bag?

  14. I need help. - Miami - Florida (FL) -Miami-Dade County - Page 3 - City-Data Forum says:

    April 2nd, 2011 at 10:24 pm (#)

    [...] Originally Posted by cixcell Actually nationally I’ve heard on average girls are better at math than guys. Girls Vs. Boys at Math | ScienCentral | Science Videos | Science News [...]

  15. Faisal says:

    April 17th, 2011 at 8:30 am (#)

    Girls are naturally inclined towards subjects that require hardwork more than brainstorming while boys cannot concentrate for long and perform better in subjects requiring logic and that’s the reason more scientists and engineers are men despite there being no discrimination in professional institutes while offering admissions

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