Debunking Myths about Girls, Boys, and Math

May 7th, 2012

Are boys better at math than girls? If so, why?

The topic has been in the news lately with several studies and blog posts circulating among parents and educators.

Researchers Jonathan Kane and Janet Mertz set out to answer the question in their recently published article, “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance.” Along the way, they devote statistical analysis to a range of theories that have been put forward to explain the greater participation of males in high-end math classes and math-oriented careers, including the following:

  • “The greater male variability hypothesis”—I.e., boys are biologically predisposed to quantitative fields, whereas girls are more comfortable with nurturing ones.
  • “The gap due to inequity hypothesis”—Girls perform worse in math in countries that have a lot of gender inequity.
  • “The Muslim culture hypothesis”—In certain Muslim countries, there is little gender gap in math performance.
  • “The single-gendered classroom hypothesis”—Maybe that’s because boys and girls are taught in separate classrooms in many Muslim countries?

Through their analysis, Kane and Mertz reject all of those theories in favor of what they call “the gender stratified hypothesis”—boys and girls are born with similar potential but end up displaying differences due to a complex mix of sociocultural factors, including the education and income levels of women and their ability to advocate for their children.

The researchers point out that because girls’ math performance is linked to sociocultural factors and not biology, it can improve over time, as it has in the United States during the past several decades (according to Kane and Mertz):

  • Girls have reached parity with boys in math performance in the United States, even in high school, where a large gap existed in the 1970s.
  • In the 1970s, boys scoring higher than 700 on the math portion of the SATs exceeded girls by a ratio of 13:1. In the 1990s, the ratio had dropped to 3:1.
  • The percentage of math PhDs awarded to U.S. citizens who are girls has risen from 3% in the 1960s to 30% in the past decade.

That’s significant progress, but we still have a ways to go. We asked three of our math authors to comment on what we can do to ensure that both girls and boys reach their potential in school and in their careers. Over the next week on this blog we will hear from Chris Confer, coauthor of Small Steps, Big Changes; Jessica Shumway, author of Number Sense Routines; and Maryann Wickett, coauthor of the Beyond the Bubble series.

What is your take on the topic? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Entry Filed under: math

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