# Study debunks myths about gender and math performance

December 12, 2011MADISON -- A major study of recent international data on school mathematics performance casts doubt on some common assumptions about gender and math achievement -- in particular, the idea that girls and women have less ability due to a difference in biology.

"We tested some recently proposed hypotheses that try to explain a supposed gender gap in math performance and found they were not supported by the data," says Janet Mertz, senior author of the study and a professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Instead, the Wisconsin researchers linked differences in math performance to social and cultural factors.

The new study, by Mertz and Jonathan Kane, a professor of mathematical and computer sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, was published today (Dec. 12, 2011) in

*Notices of the American Mathematical Society*. The study looked at data from 86 countries, which the authors used to test the "greater male variability hypothesis" famously expounded in 2005 by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, as the primary reason for the scarcity of outstanding women mathematicians.

That hypothesis holds that males diverge more from the mean at both ends of the spectrum and, hence, are more represented in the highest-performing sector. But, using the international data, the Wisconsin authors observed that greater male variation in math achievement is not present in some countries, and is mostly due to boys with low scores in some other countries, indicating that it relates much more to culture than to biology.

The new study relied on data from the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the 2009 Programme in International Student Assessment.

"People have looked at international data sets for many years", Mertz says. "What has changed is that many more non-Western countries are now participating in these studies, enabling much better cross-cultural analysis."

The Wisconsin study also debunked the idea proposed by Steven Levitt of "Freakonomics" fame that gender inequity does not hamper girls' math performance in Muslim countries, where most students attend single-sex schools. Levitt claimed to have disproved a prior conclusion of others that gender inequity limits girls' mathematics performance. He suggested, instead, that Muslim culture or single-sex classrooms benefit girls' ability to learn mathematics.

By examining the data in detail, the Wisconsin authors noted other factors at work. "The girls living in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Bahrain and Oman, had, in fact, not scored very well, but their boys had scored even worse, a result found to be unrelated to either Muslim culture or schooling in single-gender classrooms," says Kane.

He suggests that Bahraini boys may have low average math scores because some attend religious schools whose curricula include little mathematics. Also, some low-performing girls drop out of school, making the tested sample of eighth graders unrepresentative of the whole population.

"For these reasons, we believe it is much more reasonable to attribute differences in math performance primarily to country-specific social factors," Kane says.

To measure the status of females relative to males within each country, the authors relied on a gender-gap index, which compares the genders in terms of income, education, health and political participation. Relating these indices to math scores, they concluded that math achievement at the low, average and high end for both boys and girls tends to be higher in countries where gender equity is better. In addition, in wealthier countries, women's participation and salary in the paid labor force was the main factor linked to higher math scores for both genders.

"We found that boys -- as well as girls -- tend to do better in math when raised in countries where females have better equality, and that's new and important," says Kane. "It makes sense that when women are well-educated and earn a good income, the math scores of their children of both genders benefit."

Mertz adds, "Many folks believe gender equity is a win-lose zero-sum game: If females are given more, males end up with less. Our results indicate that, at least for math achievement, gender equity is a win-win situation."

U.S. students ranked only 31st on the 2009 Programme in International Student Assessment, below most Western and East-Asian countries. One proposed solution, creating single-sex classrooms, is not supported by the data. Instead, Mertz and Kane recommend increasing the number of math-certified teachers in middle and high schools, decreasing the number of children living in poverty and ensuring gender equality.

"These changes would help give all children an optimal chance to succeed," says Mertz. "This is not a matter of biology: None of our findings suggest that an innate biological difference between the sexes is the primary reason for a gender gap in math performance at any level. Rather, these major international studies strongly suggest that the math-gender gap, where it occurs, is due to sociocultural factors that differ among countries, and that these factors can be changed."

-end-

University of Wisconsin-Madison

## Related Mathematics Articles from Brightsurf:

A new method for boosting the learning of mathematics

How can mathematics learning in primary school be facilitated? UNIGE has developed an intervention to promote the learning of math in school.

Could mathematics help to better treat cancer?

Impaired information processing may prevent cells from perceiving their environment correctly; they then start acting in an uncontrolled way and this can lead to the development of cancer.

People can see beauty in complex mathematics, study shows

Ordinary people see beauty in complex mathematical arguments in the same way they can appreciate a beautiful landscape painting or a piano sonata.

Improving geothermal HVAC systems with mathematics

Sustainable heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, such as those that harness low-enthalpy geothermal energy, are needed to reduce collective energy use and mitigate the continued effects of a warming climate.

How the power of mathematics can help assess lung function

Researchers at the University of Southampton have developed a new computational way of analyzing X-ray images of lungs, which could herald a breakthrough in the diagnosis and assessment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung diseases.

Mathematics pushes innovation in 4-D printing

New mathematical results will provide a potential breakthrough in the design and the fabrication of the next generation of morphable materials.

More democracy through mathematics

For democratic elections to be fair, voting districts must have similar sizes.

How to color a lizard: From biology to mathematics

Skin color patterns in animals arise from microscopic interactions among colored cells that obey equations discovered by Alan Turing.

US educators awarded for exemplary teaching in mathematics

Janet Heine Barnett, Caren Diefenderfer, and Tevian Dray were named the 2017 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award winners by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) for their teaching effectiveness and influence beyond their institutions.

Authors of year's best books in mathematics honored

Prizes for the year's best books in mathematics were awarded to Ian Stewart and Tim Chartier by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) on Jan.

Read More: Mathematics News and Mathematics Current Events

How can mathematics learning in primary school be facilitated? UNIGE has developed an intervention to promote the learning of math in school.

Could mathematics help to better treat cancer?

Impaired information processing may prevent cells from perceiving their environment correctly; they then start acting in an uncontrolled way and this can lead to the development of cancer.

People can see beauty in complex mathematics, study shows

Ordinary people see beauty in complex mathematical arguments in the same way they can appreciate a beautiful landscape painting or a piano sonata.

Improving geothermal HVAC systems with mathematics

Sustainable heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, such as those that harness low-enthalpy geothermal energy, are needed to reduce collective energy use and mitigate the continued effects of a warming climate.

How the power of mathematics can help assess lung function

Researchers at the University of Southampton have developed a new computational way of analyzing X-ray images of lungs, which could herald a breakthrough in the diagnosis and assessment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung diseases.

Mathematics pushes innovation in 4-D printing

New mathematical results will provide a potential breakthrough in the design and the fabrication of the next generation of morphable materials.

More democracy through mathematics

For democratic elections to be fair, voting districts must have similar sizes.

How to color a lizard: From biology to mathematics

Skin color patterns in animals arise from microscopic interactions among colored cells that obey equations discovered by Alan Turing.

US educators awarded for exemplary teaching in mathematics

Janet Heine Barnett, Caren Diefenderfer, and Tevian Dray were named the 2017 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award winners by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) for their teaching effectiveness and influence beyond their institutions.

Authors of year's best books in mathematics honored

Prizes for the year's best books in mathematics were awarded to Ian Stewart and Tim Chartier by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) on Jan.

Read More: Mathematics News and Mathematics Current Events

Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.