A lot of people think that girls just don’t “do” math. In fact, many of these same people believe that this is related to girls just being better at different things than boys. This might be true in some areas, but recent studies have shown that, when it comes to math, girls just might be as good if not better!
You might be surprised to learn that not all of these studies are recent. Janet Hyde, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, found that girls tested in math just as well as boys before high school. That was in the late eighties/early nineties. Now, nearly twenty years later, researchers took another look at standardized test scores in a report published recently in Science. They found that there is actually no difference in mathematical ability in high school, either.
Now, that’s not to say that girls and boys both approach math in the same way. For instance, Hyde noted that she thought “the boys tend to be a little more idiosyncratic in solving problems, the girls more conservative in following what they’ve been taught.” But, of course, we know that approaching a problem in a different way doesn’t necessarily lead to being more or less good at solving it.
So it kind of makes you wonder: why does the perception exist that girls aren’t as good at math, and why aren’t more giving it a try in high school and college?
As discussed in the Kellogg Insight article titled Women and Math, the Gender Gap Bridged, environmental factors, including culture, seem to have a lot to do with it. From the article:
Across generations and cultures, women have reached remarkable levels of scientific and social achievement. Yet five years into the 21st century, the leader of one of the world’s most elite universities, in one of the oldest democracies, opined upon “the unfortunate truth” that women probably are not as mentally equipped for work in math and science as men (Summers 2005). While this would be most unfortunate, is it true? A recent study in the journal Science [the same study mentioned earlier] shows that “the so-called gender gap in math seems to be linked to environmental factors, which means it could be eliminated by education or social programs.” So said Paola Sapienza (Finance), one of the authors, along with Luigi Guiso (Instituto Universitario Europeo) and Ferdinando Monte and Luigi Zingales (both of the University of Chicago). In fact, she continued, “this gap doesn’t exist in countries in which there is greater gender equality”.
To drive home this point, researchers looked at the correlation between the social structure of many countries and how well the girls from each performed in math. For example, they “found that improved social conditions for women were related to improved math performance by girls.”
Interestingly, this sort of finding doesn’t rule out biological differences between men and women when it comes to ability in a certain subject: “the between gender differences in a single discipline - reading or math - certainly appear to be influenced by social features, but the within gender differences between reading and math, and between arithmetic and geometry, appear to be much more stable across environments, suggesting possible biological roots.
Let’s recap. Many people think or have thought that girls just weren’t as good at math as boys are. Studies are showing that this apparent gap in ability is closing, or is non-existent in some countries. While environmental factors seem to contribute to the gap where it exists, there’s no denying that there could be some biological differences between male and female brains that make certain problems easier for one or the other.
Since many of us live in areas where this gap still exists, at least in perception, we can ask ourselves what we can do about it. In my opinion, initiatives like the Nerd Girls help make a big difference by spreading the word that girls are capable of both excelling in subjects like math and enjoying it, too. What do you think needs to be done?