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Math-score differences arise from cultural factors, not innate biological differences, study suggests

A study concluded that math performance for boys and girls improves when there is greater gender equality.

It was an odd place to find it, but while reading the New York Times chess column last weekend I stumbled across a report on an interesting recent study that wades into the murky and highly charged waters of gender and math achievement.

In the column, Dylan Loeb McClain suggested that because the disciplines of math and chess share many similarities, the findings from this new study may help explain why so few women (22) are currently found among the world’s top 1,000 chess players.

That explanation, if the study’s findings are correct, appears to have more to do with cultural factors than with any innate biological differences.

A cross-cultural analysis

Published in the January issue of the journal Notices of the American Mathematical Society, the study was conducted by a husband-wife team of University of Wisconsin professors, Janet Mertz (oncology) and Jonathan Kane (mathematical and computer sciences). Using datasets of the results of internationally standardized math exams, the two set out to test some of the popular theories about why boys tend to outperform girls in math tests.

“They examined student assessment scores from 86 countries,” writes McClain, “and found that although boys outperformed girls in some countries, girls outperformed boys in others. That clearly suggested that the differences were the result of cultural factors. Mertz and Kane concluded that math performance for boys and girls improves when there is greater gender equality.”

In the study, Mertz and Kane debunk two well-known hypotheses about the supposed gender gap in math achievement. One is the “greater male variability” theory infamously used in a 2005 speech by Larry Summers, who was then president of Harvard University, to explain the dearth of tenured math professors at his and other Ivy League colleges. (That speech ended up costing him his job there.)

According to this long-held hypothesis (Mertz and Kane trace it back to 1894), more boys than girls break from the mean at both the high and the low end of the mathematical-achievement spectrum. Thus, more boys than girls become math’s super-performers.

Mertz and Kane found, however, that boys do not show greater variation in their math scores in all countries. In fact, in some places, like Tunisia, girls showed more variation than boys. If greater variation in math abilities were biologically innate, then it would have shown up everywhere.

Another popular hypothesis about gender and math achievement, one whose best-known advocate is probably economist Steve Levitt of “Freakonomics” fame, points to coeducational schools as the cause of the math gender gap. Levitt notes, for example, that in Muslim countries — where most boys and girls attend separate schools — there is no gender gap in math, despite the low status of women.

But Kane and Mertz found that girls do not score well in all Middle Eastern countries dominated by single-sex schools.

A matter of equity

We don’t need single-sex classrooms to boost the math scores of girls, Kane and Mertz conclude in their study. Instead, we need more and better-trained (math-certified) math teachers in middle and high schools. And we need programs that decrease child poverty — and increase gender equity.

For they found that in countries where there was gender equity in terms of income, education, health and political participation, the variation in math scores were similar for both genders.

In fact, in countries where gender equity was high — where women were well-educated and earned good incomes — both girls and boys did better at math.

As Mertz and Kane point out at the end of their study, “[W]ell-educated women who earn a good income are much better positioned than are poorly educated women who earn little or no money to ensure that the educational needs of their children of either gender with regard to learning mathematics are well met.”

They also offer this warning: “Wealthy countries that fail to provide gender equity in employment are at risk of producing too few citizens of either gender with the skills necessary to compete successfully in a knowledge-based economy driven by science and technology.”

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