Girls = Boys in Math

200872411In the US boys outperform girls in math. But we’re an outlier. As a Slate article describes it:

The only countries with a wider gap favoring boys are Colombia and Liechtenstein. Many Middle Eastern countries—notably Qatar, Jordan, and the U.A.E.—report a significant gender gap in favor of girls (though lower math scores overall). In Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, the gender gap is miniscule, and the math scores are high. Shanghai registers no gender gap between boys and girls—together, they’re outperforming other teenagers across the globe.

Why is the US so different? Here, we see math as a male domain, and that explains a lot.

American girls have less confidence in their math skills than boys and so they take fewer math classes. But girls are also less likely to join the math, science or chess clubs, too. And all those clubs help strengthen math skills.

US boys also try harder because they think math will have a bigger impact on their lives. In Jordan girls are the ones who think that, and they do better.

And importantly, when people lack confidence their performance drops. College men and women got similar scores when they were told that men and women typically do equally well. But men did better when told that big gender differences were expected. Even taking a test in a room full of men dampens American women’s performance.

Meanwhile, Asian girls did better when they were told that ethnic differences affect math scores than when they were told that gender differences did.

Looks like boys aren’t better at math, we just think they are.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on March 1, 2013, in feminism, gender, men, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. As I am a Korean I will tell the truth about math skills between male and female. As post mentioned, my home country ‘South Korea’ has neglect-able gap in math skills between male and female. Then why Korean has minimal gaps between genders, why they have gender equality in math skill. The answer is very simple. Korean starts math at a young age. I have been in elementary school in both countries. When I was in Korea, I started homeschool materials and private academy when I was seven years old (guess what, I started later than any other my friends). When I was 12, I and my friends memorized most of equations which will study at middle school and we are ready to solve those questions. However, when I was in America for one year, I saw teachers that they were trying to help to teach the concepts of mathematics. I think this difference makes huge gaps. Korean parents force children to solve and memorize all the equations regardless genders. The reason why the gap in minimal leads to one answer which is forcibleness. If the American education gives force to do math to student, the gap will minimize.

  2. I’m a Vietnamese girl, but I delight in telling my family that I love reading and books and that I’m terrible at math. Their reaction warms me. It’s like they’re imagining their own math inclined children confessing that they prefer words over numbers. As a fellow Asian, I was expected to join the ranks of my ultra mathletes brethren, and I felt kind of bad, even from a young age, that my mom wouldn’t be able to brag that her youngest daughter is becoming a doctor, or a pharmacist, or whatever other jobs that require a passing grade in chemistry.

    I was somewhat encouraged to be more interested in math when I was small. But the boys in my family were much more encouraged to pursue math things. I’m not bad at math. In any case, I recently took some biomedical device classes. And there is some math. And perhaps some engineering. And there are definitely more guys than girls. But to my surprise, I am doing quite well, quite well indeed. I may even go as far to say that I’m thriving. I did not expect things to go the way they did, especially at the start of the class.

    Now, I don’t know what the guys in my class thought of me, but my female instincts detected that they didn’t think much of me. It may be due to the way I talk, which can be valley girl sometimes, or the fact that my backpack is more suitable for a child than for a female who graduated with a four year degree. It definitely had an effect on me. I didn’t offer my answers, I tried to keep to myself, and generally felt out of place among all these men who seemed very self assured and smart and composed. I was scared that I wouldn’t do well. But now, maybe my mom will be finally able to say that her youngest daughter is in the medical device field. I may not be a doctor or a pharmacist, but anything medical is good in our eyes.

    • Interesting to grow up in the culture where are stereotyped as being good at math, As well as boys. But that doesn’t mean that everyone whose Asian is good at math are interested in it. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. I completely agree with this article, gender will not determine your math skills, nor your intelligence. Many people assume that boys do better in math because they are “boys”, but in fact, it all depends on your effort. I also believe that many factors can also affect your performance in doing things, such as : confidence, motivation, e.t.c, and I do believe that gender is not one of them.

  4. Johnny wilcox alias

    this is a cultural fenominon and girls here in the states have just not been encouraged to persuit occupation that include math or science. it has nothing to do with boys being smarter or not, its just unfortunate that institustions in the US heavily promote different occupations relating to genders.

  5. I think that math should be something judged by interest and ability instead of gender. It is at the point where it is almost ridiculous to judge based off of gender with how many people there are in our world. There is so much between black and white mentalities presented that the only thing it can do is leave a portion of society unwilling to learn or believing they are unable. For me, math has never been easy but I don’t write it off to being a girl, I write it off to my lack of interest in it and the lack of early math education I had as a child. That is all it should be. The education offered to our students and the messages sent to them are key to their ability to learn and what should be focused on.

  6. Cool stat about Asian kids doing better when they’re told about ethnic differences.

  7. Adorina Betgorgiz

    It’s interesting to me how people can relate math ability to gender. As you mentioned sex is biological. And math shouldn’t have anything to do with gender. I think when it comes to biology, men and women have the same math brain and they will perform the same if gender is not learned through society. But then gender comes and makes things complicated. If in a society, it is believed that men are better in math and girls constantly hear that men are better than them, this will sound like a reality to them and their confidence will decrease and eventually as you mentioned they will affect their performance. Maybe one reason guys do better in math in U.S is that guys go for engineering majors more than girls do and engineering majors require a lot of math classes. As a result, after taking all those math classes, guys math improves and they become better in math than girls.

  8. What I find disconcerting about the USA’s education system is that mathematics is considered a compulsory subject until at least our equivelant of “sophomore” year in high school. And mathematics covers everything, algebra, trig, statistics – the whole lot.
    It should be made clear to students looking to study other sciences at college that mathematics soon becomes the difference between the excellent students and the mediocre. If you’re bad at maths, your grades do suffer.

  9. Gender seems to have a strong effect on math grades according to your blog for the U.S. But other countries have smaller gaps so they’re clearly deeper issues.

    • Sometimes I forget the people, generally, don’t know the difference between sex and gender. Sex is biological. Gender is socially learned and varies by culture. The notion that women are supposed to be worse than men at math is learned (gender) not biologically necessary (sex).

      In your comment you’re saying the same thing that I said in my article. Read it again.

  10. Brooke Buerck

    I too growing up, and still to this day, was not god at math. I also lacked the confidence, but i think a big part is that the field i am going into, and have wanted to go into ever since i was little, Is elementary teaching where i only would have to teach and know the basics. Which i think is all you need to get through in life, unless you go into a field where there is a lot of the advanced math involved, which brings me to my point that those jobs are typically held by men. Ie.. construction, accounting, stock brokering, etc… I know that women do these too, but, the majority are men.


  11. Growing up I was never very good at math, which was due to my confidence level. I only took the math classes I needed and never tried to go any farther with them. My boyfriend on the other hand as excelled in math for as long as I can remember and to this day continues taking math classes. What I find interesting is that more men than women are diagnosed with learning disabilities. This article really opened my eyes to see that even though men are more likely to have a disability with learning that affects education, it’s really women who struggle in education.

  12. While I definitely agree that this is a very important topic, I guess my problem that I had with math wasn’t that I thought boys could do it better, because I had some really good math teachers that regularly told us that everyone had the same chance of doing good in the subject if everyone put in the effort to learn the material. I personally had a pretty rocky year when I should have been learning about algebra and so I just didn’t try. I paid that price this year when I entered college and had to take the most basic math classes my school offers, because I simply didn’t know how to solve those equations on the placement exam. unfortunately, because of the crazy things going on in my personal life, when my parents who have been happily married 20+ years to this day, I found myself in a situation where we had a broken home through neither of my parents choice. It was too chaotic dealing with everything else, and when I could have really used a parental kick in the butt, I had no support, and being an angsty teenager, I barely passed math. After that, I couldn’t bring myself to try at math anymore, I missed too many fundamentals, and I resigned myself to ultimately being dumb. Thank god my Math teachers really care, and helped me get those fundamentals, because now when I look back, I know I can only blame myself for the way that all worked out, and I’ll own that, but I wish I realized I was really good at math before I turned 25. This is such an important study that girls need to know, especially with the ridiculous gap that exists in america between boys and girls mathematically. I don;t want what I had to go through to learn math for any other person, my basic math class is mostly girls I’ve noticed, and math is something we use daily. Now that I know the basics, I know that I will do better in math, and I know that I will be able to learn it. I don’t want to see all the women in this country having to learn math later in life, because they need it for a degree, I want to see more women leaving high school, and going straight into college level math, and not taking high school math for a year just to get to college level math.

  13. diana mendoza

    I find this topic very interesting because when I was growing up I was always under the impression that boys were better in math because all the males in my grammar school class were always getting awards for that subject and the females hardly ever received any awards. However, it makes me happy that girls have the capability to be good in math because for so long I was discouraged. I thought for sure that boys were always better in math also because of the way the teachers would treat the males who excelled in that subject and it really lowered my confidence. Maybe I just need to have more confidence in myself or maybe I just need someone to give me a confidence booster in order to bring out my hidden math skills.

  14. So much of what we call ‘nature’ is actually enculturation. There was a fascinating experiment done where a teacher said blue eyed kids did better and brown eyed worse. Soon the blue-eyes were picking on the brown-eyes and doing better in class. Then the teacher said “whoops, actually it’s the other way round”. Sure enough, soon after the brown-eyed picked on the blue and did better.
    Wonder what would happen if we all just said “happiness is being nice to each other”!?!

  15. I currently work at a college prep and I do see that more boys than girls have greater confidence in mathematics, but I do see a lot of girls who take Pre-Calculus as Sophomores and Calculus in their junior and seniors years, as well. I think there is definitely some advantage for girls and boys to take some classes segregated from one another, and there are some benefits when boys learn with one another and when girls learn with one another. The blog mentions that boys are more likely to take science and math extracurriculars, but I don’t think we should look at this as evidence of inequality. Rather, boys and girls in high schools tend to want similar things but also different things, especially when it comes to extracurriculars. Why are girls more likely to be on cheer teams than boys? Why are girls more likely to be on spirit commissions? Why are boys more likely to be involved in robotics? Certainly, all of these clubs are open to both genders, and all of the clubs tend to embrace both genders–at least at the school I work at. I just went around the room and asked girls (and these girls excel in mathematics) a few questions: I asked, “Who is a girl who has taken Pre-Calc as sophomore/junior?” A few raised their hands and I went over to them. I asked “Are you good at science too?” “Yes, I’m in Physics Honors.” I said, “Great: How come you are not on the Robotics team?” She literally LAUGHED IN MY FACE. The same goes for when I asked about the math/science club etc. The responses why they don’t take these extracurriculars: I’m in a sport, It’s not my interest, It’s boring. However, there are lots of girls who participate in the science research club, but apparently it’s more about pizza and watching movies.

    I organize the tutoring program at the school, and there are many, many girls who excel in science and mathematics (and more boys sign up to get tutoring than girls, by the way). But when it comes to interest in math and science, I do believe there is a gap when it comes to gender. It doesn’t mean that girls wouldn’t do well in those clubs and activities, it’s just that it’s their choice not to participate.

    • re “boys are more likely to take science and math extracurriculars, but I don’t think we should look at this as evidence of inequality.”

      I agree. Whether it’s due to inequality or not, it affects women’s math outcomes.

  16. Another good example of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

  17. What we believe effects what we can see and do. Thanks.

  18. I remember in high school thinking that all the math and science classes were so challenging that only men would advance in these subjects. Of course high school in the mid 90’s was a little different, but I don’t recall any of my female friends, let alone any females, taking part in after school activities that involved math. But now is different. I noticed on the college campus that more women are taking roles in math to succeed in careers such as engineering or architecture. What once was thought as a male dominant field, women now are advancing in. In one of my math classes I took I partnered up with a female classmate of mine because she knew the subject so well and took it seriously. Not to say that men are becoming less intelligent in the subject of math, but it’s nice to see women enjoying it as much as them.

  19. I find this post interesting in that aspect that also more men have been diagnosed with disabilities that can affect their education than that of women. I was always under the impressions that women in general had a better time with their education and men were the ones that seemed to struggle. Plus given my perspective in that I have a learning disability, I have developed the notion that women have had an edge in education over men.

  20. sandra ruelas

    Girls=Boys in Math says people believe that boys are smarter at math than girls and found that math is seen as a male domain so that American girl have less confidence in their math skills than boys and so they take fewer math classes. I can agree with this because I only take the math classes I need. Another thing I have noticed is that in my Statistics class there are more males taking the class than females. I personally am not good with math but maybe if I stop believing that males are smarter in math ill get better at it and boost my confidence. There was a study done where they test a group of people and tell them that males and females score about the same. When the results come in males and females scored about the same. On another group they studied they told them that males topically do better than females and when the results came in the males in fact had better scores. When people lack confidence their performance drops.

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