Yesterday I talked about some new studies about the so-called biological basis for gender differences between men and women. Today I wanted to specifically look at the old stereotype that girls can't do math. According to a recent study by Professor Paola Sapienza at the Kellogg School of Management:
"The so-called gender gap in math skills seems to be at least partially correlated to environmental factors," says Sapienza. "The gap doesn't exist in countries in which men and women have access to similar resources and opportunities."
In search of bridges across the math gender gap, Sapienza and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 276,000 children in 40 countries. The large number of subjects and broad range of social systems represented were key to the validity of the study. Each child took the 2003 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an internationally standardized assessment of math, reading, science and problem-solving ability.
Based on the PISA analysis, Sapienza and her colleagues determined that while the global pattern shows that boys tended to outperform girls in math (on average girls score 10.5 points lower than boys), this advantage was not always the case. In a few countries, including Iceland, Sweden and Norway, girls scored as well as boys or better.
If that is the case, then were does this mythology stem from?
The only logical explanation can be gender socialization. What more scientific proof?
Sapienza's team found that, in more gender equal societies, the gender gap in math disappears. For example, the math gender gap almost disappeared in Sweden (GGI = 0.81), while girls scored 23 points below boys in math in Turkey (GGI = 0.59). Not only did average girls? scores improve as equality improved, but the number of girls reaching the highest levels of performance also increased.
Math and science rates for girls in the U.S., which ranks 23rd on the GGI scale with a score of 0.7, fell in the middle of the pack. On average, U.S. girls score almost 10 points lower than U.S. boys in mathematics, which is around the average for all countries analyzed in the study.
The research also found a striking gender gap in reading skills. In every country girls perform better than boys in reading In more gender equal societies, the girls? advantage in reading over boys increases further. On average, girls have reading scores that are 32.7 points higher than those of boys (6.6 percent higher than the mean average score for boys). In Turkey, this amounts to 25.1 points higher and in Iceland, girls score 61.0 points higher.
Said Sapienza, "Our research indicates that in more gender equal societies, girls will gain an absolute advantage relative to boys."
In my opinion, a lot of this has to do with the lack of support girls receive in math and science from elementary school on up through the college level. As an example, I used to love math class. In elementary school I was always in the highest math groups and in sixth grade I even competed in city-wide math competition. Mind you, I only had one male teacher in elementary school. But when I got to junior high, that changed. My math teachers in junior high and high school were all men. I remember going up to my algebra teacher in 8th grade and asking for him to explain a concept that I had difficulty understanding (just what the fuck are imaginary numbers, anyway). He told me (and I'm not lying about this), "You don't need to worry about that. It's not going to help you bake cakes." Fuck off, dude! After that I stopped caring about math at all. Today I still enjoy stats and I love balancing my checkbook or doing a budget. But don't ask me to do math that doesn't have a practical application. I still have a nasty taste in my mouth for "higher math" because of non-supportive teachers back in the day.
Here's my point in sharing this story: parents and teachers have a tremendous ability to influence our gendered selves. Had I continued to receive positive reinforcement for doing well in math, who knows what my little S-brain would be like today. Instead of shopping for purses for fun, I could be doing quadratic equations. But I fell head first into the gender trap. (Not that I'm saying I don't enjoy the purse fetish, or that the two are mutually exclusive.)
Anyway, just more food for thought in the debate about gender socialization.