Gender Gap in Mathematics Achievement a Myth?

For various reasons, it has long been believed that boys were better at math than girls. This might have been fueled in part by male dominance in professional areas that require math skills, such as engineering. But does this belief hold water? Not according to the most recent research.

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No 'Math Gene'

The myth regarding whether girls are worse at math than boys gained new attention back in 2005 when Larry Summers, then-president of Harvard University, suggested that there was a difference in the brains of the sexes that determined success in math.

But extensive research from the University of Wisconsin, which examined students in more than 50 countries, recently found nothing to support this statement.

In fact, the current research has found that even where disparity between girls and boys did exist in math, such as at the high school level, the gap has closed significantly over the past few decades. Such would not be true, the researchers say, if boys possessed a so-called 'math gene' as the myth might have had us believe.

Culture, Anxiety to Blame

The University of Wisconsin research also concludes that culture is often the reason why there is a gender gap when it comes to math. For instance, the achievement gap was small or non-existent in areas where there was gender equality, less poverty and better teachers.

Also, the stereotypical belief that boys are better at math than girls tends to lead to less encouragement from teachers, parents and guidance counselors when it comes to girls taking science and math classes. This would of course fuel the perception that boys are simply better at math.

In addition, an earlier study by the East Alabama Medical Center, which published results in January 2010, concluded that the perceived superiority of boys over girls in math is in part due to feelings of anxiety by female teachers when it comes to teaching the subject.

The study found that many of the country's elementary school teachers (about 90% of which are female) were uncertain about their own math skills. As a school year progresses, these feelings are passed on to female students.

Studies of math skills conducted at the beginning of an academic year and again at the end found that female students of teachers with a high anxiety toward math scored lower on year-end achievement tests than did boys in the same class. These same students scored higher on tests at the beginning of the year.

Male Superiority

So has the entire myth of male superiority in math been debunked? Maybe not.

Some studies show that boys are better at spatial thinking than girls. This could be in part because boys tend to spend time as children playing with blocks and Legos, while girls tend toward Barbie dolls (in 1992, a talking Barbie spoke the phrase 'Math is tough' before protests led to a change in the speech chip) and dress-up.

Boys' activities, it seems, simply encourage the development of spatial skills more so than girls' activities. Even so, as Penn State psychology professor Lynn Liben points out, spatial thinking is just one aspect of math. When it comes to achievement, Professor Liben says, 'Girls do as well as boys.'

'For math in general, I don't think there's much cognitive difference between boys and girls,' she added.

Doing the Math

One might need only to look at the facts to realize that math and related areas are not necessarily male-dominated, at least not as much as they used to be.

The percentage of women being awarded doctoral degrees in mathematics in the United States has increased six-fold over the past 50 years. Nearly half of bachelor's degrees in math are earned by women. And in 2010, about half of the top five percent of the engineering graduating class at Stanford University were women.

Basically it comes down to: do you have the will to do well in math? It is this determination, and not gender, it seems, that can assure success in this subject.

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