Gender and Math, Taking the Social for the Natural

FlashcardOver at ars technica, John Timmer summarized findings from a new study in Science, via Delong:

[A] new study suggests that, when it comes to math, we can forget biology, as social equality seems to play a dominant role in test scores.

The study, which appeared in last week’s edition of Science, relied on a test from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). A total of over 275,000 students in 40 countries took the PISA exam as 15-year-olds. On average, girls scored about 2 percent lower than boys on math, but nearly 7 percent higher on reading, consistent with previous test results.

The researchers, noted, however, that the math gap wasn’t consistent between countries. For example, it was nearly twice as large as the average in Turkey, while Icelandic girls outscored males by roughly 2 percent. The general pattern of these differences suggested to the authors that the performance differences correlated with the status of women. The authors of the study built a composite score that reflected the gender equality of the countries based on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, data extracted from the World Values Surveys, measures of female political participation, and measures of the economic significance of females.

Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Sweden score very high on gender equality measures; in these nations, the gender gap on math performance is extremely small. In contrast, nations at the other end of the spectrum, such as Turkey and Korea, had the largest gender gap. The correlations between gender equality and math scores held up under a statistical test designed to catch spurious associations. The authors even checked out the possibility of genetic effects not linked to the Y chromosome by examining whether genetic similarity between various European populations could account for these differences, but they found that it could not.