Are Boys Really More Hard-Wired for Math than Girls?by RD, MD | November 23, 2008
It used to be accepted as fact that boys are naturally better than girls in math. With time, what was taken as a fact has become an assumption that boys are more inclined to do math than girls. With even more passage of time, studies are shedding light that the differences in achievement between boys and girls may have more to do with nurture than nature.
What is changing the perception? Several factors are involved. Although still under-represented in science and engineering graduate schools across the US, the number of female scientists and engineers are increasing. Some of these scientists are now leading their own research and having more input in areas where previous work was overlooked or may not have considered. The math achievement of girls from different countries have been compared and analyzed.
An analysis of the performance of the most talented math students from different cultures revealed that between 1992- 2007, of the 11 women ranked in the top 25 in the Putnam Competition (a very challenging math competition for college students in US and Canada), only three were born in the United States. For the International Mathematical Olympiad (an elite high school math competition) many countries, including Bulgaria, Romania, China, and Russia, who often perform better than the US, field very strong teams with female competitors. China, the 2008 world champion, included a female on its team. Bulgaria and Romania two much smaller countries than the United States have won more world championships than the US since 1995 and have had more female members than the US. For more than twenty years, the United States team did not include a female. An evaluation of these elite math contests suggests that in countries where girls are encouraged to participate in mathematics they do well.
A study from Vanderbilt University (The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth) showed that in the early 1980’s the number of boys younger than 13 who scored higher than 700 on the SAT math when compared to girls in the same age group was 13:1. However, with the implementation of title IX and its emphasis on equal opportunity in education, the same study 22 years later revealed a significantly decreased ratio of 2.8:1. With more emphasis, more role models, and greater opportunity to engage in mathematical activities, young girls are closing the achievement gap.
If boys were more hard-wired for math than girls, it would seem that the achievements should follow a parallel course. Instead, the math achievement of girls has not been static and the disparity between boys and girls success in math is decreasing. As has been done in some of the most competitive countries, more young girls are now being encouraged to study math. An analysis of these countries shows that where participation in math is less gender-oriented, gender is quickly loosing any predictive value in determining a student’s academic ability.
Andreescu T, Gallian JA, Kane JM, Mertz JE. Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving. Notices of the American Mathematical Society. 2008;55(10):1248-1260.
David Lubinski, Camilla P. Benbow, Rose Mary Webb, April Bleske-Rechek (2006). Tracking Exceptional Human Capital Over Two Decades Psychological Science, 17 (3), 194-199 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01685.x
International Math Olympiad. International Math Olympiad: Top Countries by Year.
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