Are Boys Really More Hard-Wired for Math than Girls?




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.

Girl and boyAn 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.

References

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.

  • Martina

    The notion that boys are better than girls at math simply does not add up. An analysis of standardized test scores from more than 7.2 million students in grades 2 through 11 found no difference in math scores for girls and boys, contradicting the pervasive belief that most women are not hard-wired for careers in science and technology. The study also undermined the assumption – infamously espoused by former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers in 2005 – that boys are more likely than girls to be math geniuses. Girls scored in the top 5% almost as often as boys, the data showed.
    ————-
    Martina

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  • Jack

    Martina, don’t cherrypick statistics. That same study found that there were more boys than girls in the top 1%, the interval that matters for stuff like number of math PhDs. Why is it so hard to consider that, given the significant average physiological differences between men and women, the distribution of talent in any area, be it math, writing, or organization will not be the same for the two sexes. The same study found that there were more boys doing extremely poorly at math, so maybe, if both distributions are normal, men just have a larger standard deviation.
    This doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t or can’t compete in math or science. There may just be fewer. This isn’t the 1950s anymore, where girls were discouraged from pursuing careers in math and science (although my grandmother was a chemistry major). Women can do science; my sister is getting her PhD in material science at MIT. There just may not be as many of them.

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  • Jack, I think the point isn’t that females and males excel at the same rates, but that as girls are, like boys, encouraged to do well in math and science, the difference between those rates is narrowing. It’s difficult to tell how much is “hard-wired” and how much is a result of socialization.

  • Health Care

    I think that girls and boys are equal in math.

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  • Arianna

    When all babies are born, they only have half a brain. This has nothing to do with linear thinking, logic or mathematics. It is hard-wired for basic survival functionality only (as far as we can currently tell). All of the connections from there on out for higher cognition are developed through introduction via environment and the strengths are determined by repetitive practice.

    It almost renders later studies moot when one realizes how the development occurs to begin with. To me, the answer seems quite obvious, that ‘training’ plays a much larger role than what initially naturally occurs.

  • yesenia

    I agree that girls cant not excel further than boys but judging by the historical records women are beleived to have to juggle their time, activities, and duties therefore can not focus as well as men. Even from the very beginning of time men have only had one focus and that was to hunt unlike the female that had to cook, clean, babysite, knit, etc. i beleive that this has been geneticly inscribed in our DNA wich has become a modification for our survival.

RD, MD

Dr. RD is a medical doctor with experience in clinical research. An author and co-author of publications in peer-reviewed medical journals, her passion is educating patients, and she feels this is one of the most effective ways for disease prevention. She enjoys keeping abreast of the latest studies and events around the world that directly or indirectly impacts the medical field.
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