Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance

True or False:
  1. Girls under-perform boys in math.
  2. Boys are born with larger innate intellectual potential and this explains why boys are and have always been out-performing girls in math.
  3. Even if boys and girls math performance may be similar on average, there are many more boys with extremely high math capabilities than girls.
  4. Women’s nature include a tendency to prefer the more nurturing fields, such as nursing and teaching young children, to the more quantitative ones, such as mathematics, physics, and engineering. Therefore it may be a waste of time and money to expend resources directed toward trying to increase participation of women in these mathematics-intensive fields.
  5. Separate education of girls and boys in the single-gender schools improves math performance of girls. 

As you may have guessed neither of the above statements is true. And if you doubt it, take a look at the recently published scientific article by Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz "Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance"

My short summary of the article's highlights: 
The study above compared performance of boys and girls  from 65 countries  in a variety of tests and found no statistically significant difference overall in boys-vs-girls performance. In some countries, like Bahrain, girls slightly outperformed boys in math, while in others, like Tunisia, boys slightly outperformed girls. Interestingly, it has not always been this way. In the US a significant gap existed between the performance of boys and girls in the 1970th. The percentage of Ph.D.’s in the mathematical sciences awarded to U.S. citizens who are women has increased from 6 percent in the 1960s to 30 percent in the past decade. Ratio of boys-to-girls among those scoring above 700 in the SAT has changed from 13-1 to 3-1 between 60th and 90th.  This suggests that sociocultural, legal, and educational change that happened in our society between 60th and nowadays is responsible for the advancement of girls in math. 

OK, girls on average are performing as well as boys in math. What about the fact that there are many more boys at the top level of math elite? Is this nature or nurture? The authors compared number of girls who excel in mathematics performance at an extremely high level among many different countries and concluded that that it very much depends on the equality between men and women with respect to economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health.

How about the single-gender schools? The study analyzed test results of 8th graders in the 17 countries. Indeed, math advancement of girls in some countries may be explained by the single gender schools. However, the study concludes that this is not a rule and most likely caused by under-performance of boys in these countries or different educational experiences and patterns of school attendance.

In general authors write that mathematics performance of students largely reflects the academic standards and expectations of the community in which they are raised.  Specifically, home environment is a primary determinant for success of children in school.

Top image by Demi-Brooke, distributed under CCL.


    1. As a teacher (retired) and a person who was educated in (gulp) the 50's (late 50's-- and boy does that ever age me), I can tell you that the myth is NOT a myth. My evidence is (horror of horrors) all anecdotal -- and science abhors anecdotal evidence.

      What were the 50's like? Poodle skirts, very tight gender lines ie "Box Like" expectations, song lyrics that were light as a feather and silly as the poetry here

      for a "scholarly" history of Tutti Fruiti go here

      My point is that the 50's were so wooden and predictable, it was almost like the Victorian Era. Dating a girl without considering her as marriage material was a rule next to impossible to break. Going out because she was fun? Forget it. There was no fun in the 50's contrary to Bill Haley and the Comets were prepared to tell you.

      Did the school system reflect the 50's? You bet your pony tail it did. Girls were freaks if they excelled in Mathematics or Physics. Think I'm nuts? I told you my evidence was all anecdotal. We had 2 girls in our introductory Calculus class. (28 boys). I don't remember any being in my Physics class. Come to think of it, boys were really considered nerdy to take these classes, especially in high school. It is no wonder that myths like this existed in the 50's.

      Society changed immensely the day Sputnik went up. The kids didn't give it much thought, but government officials sure did. All of a sudden Leave it to Beaver was out and Einstein as folk hero was in, much to his surprise!! Note: Beaver Cleaver was still popular but not top 30 programs.

      One thing Beaver did prove: his picture of the 50's was accurate and women must have bought into it. They all aspired to go to Europe and then get married, or just to get married.

      I've never understood why Mona Lisa's Smile (with Julia Roberta) never caught on -- it was very accurate. I suspect that people watching it couldn't believe the era was that stupid (It was.), that the 50's could be that stilted (they were), and finally that Marci Gay Harden could be the norm (bless her little conformist heart, she was). The only false note: "Why was she (Marci Gay) still single?"

      The myth might not be true now, but it sure was then. The 60's were the children of the 50's don't forget.

    2. I was in HS in the 1980s and even then, females in upper-level math and science classes were rare. In my calculus class, there were 3 women; in my AP physics class, there were about the same (my memory is fading now with the years, but in both subjects women were a small minority). My calculus teacher routinely made disparging, sexist remarks (often in jest --- though they weren't so funny to me) about females and their mathematical abilities. He was not a bad guy inherently, but he had grown up in a time and place (Ireland, 1930s-40s) where women achieving in math and sciences was not the norm and his views had never adjusted.

      My physics teacher on the other hand, did all he could to encourage everyone, including women, in the sciences and thanks largely to him, when I left HS, I wanted to major in engineering. I ended up majoring in mathematics instead though took a number of engineering courses along the way.

      I do think the beliefs listed above in the original post are largely myths and that in the right environment and with supportive mentors and peers, women can accomplish as much in math and the sciences as men.

      The great women of math and science, both from the past and of today, are inspiring. I think of Rita Levi Montalcini, a Nobel laureate in medicine, who celebrated her 100th birthday with a research symposium held in her honor, and of other amazing researchers, and I think of the wonderful female math and science teachers I have had over the years. Having access to male teachers and researchers who encourage women in these fields is good, but women teachers and researchers are even better for students since they can lead by example and demonstrate what it possible.

      Women are often in the minority in the sciences and engineering. I live in a college town and at the big state university here, of the almost 100 faculty in the College of Engineering, less than 10% are women, and even women who bring in significant research funding and are major contributors to the university, to their fields, can find it hard to advance to the same degree as their male colleagues. I am not a professor, but many of my friends are, and I have seen this happen too many times. Why? Often women faculty have more childrearing responsibilities than their spouses, who may also be professors. Women are more likely to take a leave from their when they have a child (or children) and though this is fully allowed by university policy, it can be indirectly held against them later.... and in some cases, women don't seem to be as valued from their contributions, even when they are significant, as their male colleagues.

      ... and sadly, it is not only in academia, where ceilings and barriers to women succeeding at high levels in mathematics and the sciences exist.

      Some progress has been made in recent decades, but much more progress is needed.

    3. Thank you for the interesting article. But I think there was a fact that in my class (in the past) both the best student and the worst student are male :D
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