Posted by: elenadbutler | October 24, 2008

New study says no gender gap in math?

The Larry Summers/women in science drama hit around the time I was applying to college, and that’s when I started getting questions about being female and doing math. Now I’m in the habit of counting the number of girls in each of my (not just math) classes. My french class has about 30 people, only three of whom are boys; I believe this course has six girls. It’s funny how skewed classes can get.

Anyway, I used to worry a lot about whether my inability to write proofs had to do with me being a girl, but apprently the gender gap is no more! According to a new study funded by the NSF, guys and girls now score similarly on standardized math tests. This conclusion was based on scores from 7 million students. 20 years ago, high school boys did better; researchers say that the reason girls have closed the gap is that we now take as many hard math classes as the boys do. Even on the most complex problems, where traditionally boys have scored better, the girls did about as well. So, I guess my proof issues are my own fault.

The study notes that stereotypes persist despite the fact that scores are now similar, which probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you guys. Other than the boring stereotype of girls being bad at math, I feel like I’ve heard people assume that girls do well in math because they study hard, whereas boys are innately gifted. I’ve heard that boys are better test-takers because of their confidence, and that girls do better on questions that directly test what they’ve learned at school while boys are relatively better at solving problems that require them to think outside the box.

Do you think your gender has affected your experience with math? Do you think there are innate differences between men and women in the sciences? Why or why not?

(For more info: “Math Scores Show No Gap for Girls, Study Finds” from the 8/25/08 NYT, and the original paper: “Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance, Janet Hyde and Sara Lindberg, from the 8/25/08 issue of Science.)



  1. Commenter from slashdot said this report’s math was wrong because the paper’s was done by women. Not I’m agreeing with it, but it’s funny…

    According to the most recent issue of Notices of the American mathematical society. The article “Cross-cultural analysis of students with exceptional talent in mathematical problem solving”, the ability to do math is likely more cultural based instead of sex based.

    Still, statistic show there are more men in math than women. There are also more men with Ph.D in math, more men receive fields medal…

    Is there innate differences between men and women in the sciences? Certainly.
    Generalize that…
    Is there innate differences in science between any 2 distinct category of human,which are categorized by their genetic feature? Certainly.
    To think 2 groups have the exact same ability when they were born is dismissing the idea of genes affect ability.

    The only question is how much the genes affect the math ability. How much does it compare to the culture.

    I assume culture has 90% influence. I know a girl who is much better in math than me. According to her, she lost her chance to become an IMO contestant because in US, there is no one giving her rigorous training. In China, she can find training in LOTs of places. There are places to go.

    I also know people who love math, tried their best, but in the end still fall behind some people who doesn’t put that much effort. Genes does have their effect.

    Math 152 is such a fun class…

  2. I know that the whole Summers debacle was long and crazy and what not… and some woman even claimed that she “fainted” upon Summers saying what he said. However, as chauvinistic as it may or may not be, his statements are founded in scientific reasoning. The odds of men and women being different in terms of how our minds think… those are pretty high odds.

    That being said, the real truth may be that boys scores are now similar to girls. However, this may just mean that boys are scoring lower and girls are scoring the same. This does not really change the dynamic… It just means everyone is worse off.

  3. The only interesting personal insight I can lend to this dates back to high school and the New SAT… Remember when the College Board restructured the SAT? Remember when this forced many of us in that awkward transition period to take BOTH the old and new exams? This turned out to be an informative “natural experiment” of sorts (the sample size here is one–just me–so this isn’t legit data or anything).

    So one of the aims of the New SAT was to make it more “fair” for girls by including the essay portion (apparently girls are better at writing–again, I find this highly debatable!) and eliminating traditionally boy-friendly (supposedly!) question types like the analogy and quant comparisons.

    Suffice it to say that, after comparing my performance on both the Old and New tests (and across subsections and question types), the College Board would declare me to be a man. I wonder what my roommates would say to that…

  4. Yes, presumably since men and women possess a significantly different genotype and phenotype (far more significantly different than that between `races’), they possess, on the average, a not completely identical set of abilities, reactions, personalities, strengths, weaknesses etc. It is nonsense to call this observation politically incorrect, since it is principally a scientific observation. The problem is in how we apply it.

    Incidentally, my conjecture is that whatever genetic differences affect whether girls end up in math work through the mechanism of personality differences (attitude toward test-taking, reaction to competitiveness, etc.) rather than differences in raw ‘ability.’ Unfortunately, we have no idea how to measure these things, so I don’t know when we’ll figure this out.

    I was often the only girl in my math classes, but somehow I never noticed. (I was also often the only girl on my bike rides too, and there I noticed because male competitive cyclists have no compunction about cursing when a girl passes them up a hill. That was one of my principal joys for years.)

    But then, once you get older, a few things happen that make you think about your gender: kids, marriage, etc. You might think these should be symmetrical, but they’re not. Actually carrying the baby is one example, but a subtler example is that because of the ratio of women and men in mathematics at the moment, more women in mathematics are part of an academic couple (academic spouses are hard to move around).

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