Girls and Math

Daniel R. Hawes in Psychology Today:

Math_400-300x300 …one possibility for analyzing the origin of sex differences in math performance exists in looking at changes in the data over time, and in correlating math achievements with indicators of gender equality in order to see if changes in women's role in society have been followed by improved achievements in mathematics.

Last year ago, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science takes just this approach and in doing so focuses on the following four questions:

  • Do gender differences in mathematics performance exist in the general population?
  • Do gender differences exist among the highly mathematically talented?
  • Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent?
  • How do sociocultural factors correlate with gender differences observed in measured mathematical performance?

Drawing on meatanalysis of the literature and new data gathered as a result of “No Child Left Behind” the researchers find that

“gender differences in performance were close to zero in all grades, including high school. […] Thus, girls have now reached parity with boys in mathematics performance in the U.S., even in high school where a gap existed in earlier decades.”

A question, that is not addressed by the study, but which I am curious about is how much of the narrowing of the gender gap is girls catching up vs how much is boys falling behind; especially as numeracy is one of my pet peeves.

Focusing on the mathematically talented, i.e. the professors and award winning mathematicians, the researchers also find the gap to be closing. This is interesting, since one popular hypothesis regarding sex differences in mathematical (and other cognitive) abilities used to state that possibly men's and women's ability was spread around the same mean, but that men displayed greater variance. This would explain why men dominate the lowest and the highest percentiles for many cognitive ability scores.

However, the researchers not only find the score to be narrowing, but also cite data that shows no difference in variance for math performance in a number of countries. Given that most people will not be willing to extend an hypothesis in which sex differences are the reason for differential math performance in some countries but not in others (which does seem quite absurd), this also seems to indicate that the “greater variance hypothesis”, as I shall term it loosely, needs to be discarded.

More here. And the second part of this article is here.