Serena Freewomyn

Are Girls Really Bad At Math?

Filed By Serena Freewomyn | July 12, 2008 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: feminism, gender, math, socialization

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.


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Warning: Total Geek-out ahead re: mathematical reminiscence.

I totally agree. When actually given resources and support, girls are fully capable of amazing feats in math. I have fond memories of my middle school math team. The coach (and teacher of the highest available math classes) was a woman who was encouraging and supportive and probably the best math teacher I ever had. Our "A" team was made up entirely of girls. And yes, I do count myself in that, even though only the random stranger would see me as a girl at the time. We were in the state competition and all four of us made it into the top 11 math students in the state (I got the bad end of a 4-way tie for 8th).

High school was another story. I had two years of agonizingly boring and passionless math which nearly beat the love of math out of me. (I spent class writing tortured teenage poetry about having my wings nailed to the ground). I hadn't put it into gendered context before, but now that I think about it, those two years were both from male teachers who I pretty clearly felt uncared for by -- and my junior year which brought a slight math reawakening gave me a female calculus teacher who made me feel like I was a part of a math family again.

When I first heard the suggestion that girls are inherently bad at math I was just confused. Everyone I knew who was good at math -- all the best math students and teachers -- seemed to be girls and women. Even removing myself as the transgender oddball that confuses statisticians, that was clearly the case. I know my experience is a bit of an anomaly -- What people saw as the almost all girl allstar math team actually turned out to be all girls -- but it's a clear example of what can happen when the support and resources are there.

Tobi, thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like we were in the same boat back in the day. Tell me, do you get as excited about practical math as I do these days? I mean, I can't think of a better way to spend a Sunday morning than balancing my checkbook after I've done the crossword puzzle and had my 2 cups of java.

P.S. Loved the nerd alert!

After graduating college I spent two years as a tutor specializing in algebra. And since it was advanced algebra I was doing in middle school, I had really positive associations with it. Sharing the little methods I've learned for understanding and thinking about math was great fun.

I think the big fun for me, though, is writing and balancing budgets, personally or professionally (the checkbook is a bit boring because I usually know the answer -- it's like reading a mystery novel when someone told you the ending). And I will automatically start calculating the price per ounce to compare different products at the grocery store. It's a bit easier now that some stores put that on the price tag, but I'll do it in my head if it's not there.

You wrote, "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'." And yet, you,re now going to culinary school? (giggle) Good article.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 12, 2008 10:43 PM

I have always found it odd how life has a way of becoming a strange wheel where we revisit our past to create our future. Lots of male teachers were/are chauvinist in regards to the manner in which they view capabilities of women.

Could this be that teaching (back in the day) was the highest pay occupation for college educated women and the lowest paying occupation for college educated men?

When I entered Purdue University the two largest schools for women students were education and home economics. Their daddies were sending their daughters to school to snag an engineer, join a sorority and become a homemaker. So much waste of potential and many of them completely bought in to it. For myself, I have always thought women were smarter than men.

Umm, she totally could have gotten her math wrong.

Monica - I thought the same thing. *holds sides laughing*

Monica and Bil - I know! Totally the definition of irony.

Phil - 2 shay!

This post made me think of this.

(And, yes, I read every xkcd just so I can reference them when necessary.)