New Study Debunks Biological Gender Gap in Math

When former Harvard President Larry Summers suggested there were "issues of intrinsic aptitude" regarding women's math abilities it caused quite a stir. Now, a new University of Wisconsin study based on data from 84 countries definitively debunks the still widely perceived idea that boys are naturally better than girls at math. "Culture, not biology, is the primary force behind any measurable differences," Janet Mertz, PhD, one of the study's coauthors, told Yahoo! Shine.

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Mertz and her colleague Jonathan Kane, who is a professor of mathematics and computer science, wanted to "put to rest the idea that there are innate differences between boys and girls in both average and variable performances in mathematics." Summers had posited that men hold more PhDs in math than women due to the "greater male variability hypothesis" - that is, there are more men at both the low end and the high end of the spectrum.

According to the international data, in many countries, such as the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, girls today in fact perform as well as boys both on average and at high levels. In other countries, such as the United States, the gap has narrowed significantly in recent decades. In the 1970s, the ratio of boys versus girls who are considered gifted in math by the age of 13 was 13:1; today it is 3:1. Any variability was inconsistent country to country, which would not have been the case if there were an underlying biological principle in play. The study also found that worldwide, girls' achievement in math couldn't be linked to whether or not they were in a single sex or coeducational school.

The authors did find that for girls' math performance, there was "a positive correlation with some measures of gender equity, especially participation rates and salaries in the paid labor force relative to men." Interestingly, in countries where women earned high incomes relative to men, both girls and boys tended to do well in math. "Mothers, if they can afford it, encourage both their boys and their girls," says Mertz. "Gender equality is a win-win situation."

Mertz also points out that, compared with other developed countries, kids in the United States do poorly overall in math. "In the United States, if you are getting a C in math, your parents say: 'You don't have the math gene.' In South Korea, they say: 'Study harder.'" According to a report by the Program for International Student Assessment, American teens ranked 25th in math compared with other students around the world.

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