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?

US boys do 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.

Also, in the US we see math as a male domain, and that explains a lot.

Historically, American girls have had less confidence in their math skills than boys and have taken 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.

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 June 23, 2017, in gender, psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. In my country, Spain, girls are in math and science generally better than boys.

  2. Boys are not better than girls at math for a given IQ. However the IQ distribution for boys and girls is a bit different. Many people in the high IQ ranges gravitate to the mathematical fields like engineering, computer science, physics etc, and its in the high IQ ranges where men outnumber and outperform women at increasing amounts the higher up the scale you go. So in school, it’s conceivable that girls and boys will get a similar score. That’s highly unlikely at university where the mathematical courses attract the higher IQ students. There are 10 males for each female at 3 standard deviations of intelligence (145).

    • Women performed better than men on the first IQ test that was ever administered.

      So researchers changed the test to favor men.

      Today, there’s just a 1% difference in IQ measurements between women and men, with men distributed at both the lower and higher ends.

      But as we have just seen, IQ tests do not perfectly measure our potential for smarts.

      In fact, before feminism girls performed better on IQs tests in elementary school than they did after leaving the elementary grades. But feminism changed that pattern.

      Stereotypes affect how people perform on tests. Black people who have to mark their race on standardized tests lose confidence and do worse. Two groups of Asian American women were given a math test. One group was told it was to measure gender differences, the other group was told it was to measure ethnic differences. Gender stereotypes say women do worst at math in America. But ethnic differences say that Asians do better on math. The women who were told the test measures ethnic differences performed better.

      Other differences in socialization also affect performance. Not only are boys top that map is a male domain, Helping them to do better on the math portion of an IQ test, but parents are more likely to play number games with their boys, and “Science club” and “Chess club” are generally thought of as things boys do. Their spatial skills can also be helped by the emphasis on sports and video games.

      These things are all beginning to change so we will see if IQ test performance changes overtime too.

      And if what you said were true you wouldn’t get the patterns you find from country to country.

      • I believe the bell curve works the other way that he didn’t mention. Men and women are pretty even with intelligence or IQ. Except when talking about the bell curve as in extremely intelligent or genius level intelligence there are more men. But also on the same spectrum or bell curve of low IQ, I believe I saw from a study there are more low intelligence men than women too. So it evens out. Sure there are more genius men or higher level genius, but men beat out women too on the stupid scale if we go the other direction too ha.

      • The low end seems to be explained by “fragile x.” The y doesn’t do much – pretty much just tells the male body how to form as a male since as embryos we all look female until the testosterone wash, which is triggered by the y.

        So women have a spare X if the other one doesn’t work right. But guys don’t have a spare.

        But even that gap at the high-end could be explained by something other than innate ability. Possibly continuing sexism in the exam. I said, the first IQ test that was created actually had women doing better — so the changed it right away. Exams aren’t perfect.

        Or something about the way boys and girls are socialized, Like boys having more experience with mathematical and spatial skills when they’re young because of the way their parents interact with them and the toys they are encouraged to play with. Plus the societal belief that men are better at math gives them confidence and confidence helps people to do better on exams.

  3. All of our schools should be showing the movie Hidden Figures.

    • Yes! That film breaks down both gender and racial stereotypes.

      They should start showing it in elementary school when kids are first forming a sense of who they are.

  4. I attended high school at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, CA. Living on the border of Silicon Valley, Fremont is a primarily Asian-American community, and my school was one of the best high schools in the area, causing it to gain a lot of interest from these wealthy, Asian-American households. MSJHS’s student demographic is 85% Asian, 10% white, and 5% every other race. My elementary school directly fed into my junior high (which is adjacent to it), and my junior high directly fed into my high school (which is back-to-back with my junior high), so I grew up with this demographic all my life. In my community, many of my peers’ parents were immigrants, and expressed the academic expectations that might be stereotypical to Asian countries. In Fremont, there’s an SAT Prep school on every corner, and the average SAT score for MSJHS is over 2000 (the national average is about 1400). A majority of my graduating class attended UC Berkeley directly from high school. Multiple students got into Ivy League schools, including our class president who is now attending Harvard. To these students, myself included, academic success is more than just a goal; it’s a necessity.

    My school had a strong focus on STEM classes. Our arts and athletic programs received hardly any money, but the STEM programs had enough money to buy smart boards, hundreds of textbooks on nearly twenty different subjects, and more than one class set of iPads. Because of this support, nearly all of my peers, many of them female, excelled in math.

    I would guess it’s the parents’ or the school’s fault that the average U.S. girl lacks confidence in math. At MSJHS, we grew up with the same mainstream media as the rest of America. Our only difference was that the expectations of Asian-American parents permeated our community, and greatly influenced our views on academia. Every girl is capable of succeeding in math; all she needs is the proper support from her community.

    • Yeah, that demographic probably makes a really big difference. In many Asian countries women and men perform equally well in math.

    • Nah, not so much expectations. Rather East Asians are the demographic with the highest IQ. You can’t fake your way to high SAT scores merely through harassing parents and peripheral helps. They’ll give a few percentage point boost at best.

      • There’s no evidence that East Asians have the highest IQ. They do tend to work harder than other ethnicities though. But that doesn’t seem to be due to biology. One theory is that rice, being such an important staple, was farmed by most families for millennia, and rice patties take a tremendous amount of work, creating a strong work ethic.

  5. I think often teachers share that belief as well. I excelled at math until an 8th grade teacher started favouring a male student who was my inferior. My math scores fell and I struggled to make up the difference without knowing what I was doing wrong. Eventually we sorted out that the (male) teacher was grading male students more leniently. I went back to the top of the class when the principal ordered tests to be scored by a third party – and I wasn’t the only girl whose grades were affected. But had we not discovered this, a bunch of us would have moved on to high school believing we weren’t as worthy just because of someone’s bias.

    • Yes, studies have shown that teachers also feel a bias toward believing boys are better at math in America. Parents too. And those attitudes affect children’s confidence in their abilities and their performance.

      Thank you for sharing your story on this. This was a more extreme example how it can happen. Oftentimes the message is communicated much more subtly. But still has a important effects.

  6. I have a hunch one doesn’t have to tear down one thing to build up another. It is harder to simply build up, but I think it is a more solid foundation.

  7. Brooke Hatfield

    In my psychology class we talked about the way girls are stereotyped to be more creative and only peak in fun and emotional critical thinking and not mathematical. Also teachers are more likely to encourage young boys to think big and not give as much analytical insight to young girls.

  8. FHill_Spr'17JR

    From my experience I see that it is the teacher that has subconsciously left out the girls. In elementary school I remember my teacher would give the boys in the class extra packets of math problems to do. One time I asked this girl in my class for help and she said that she never got the packet. So there is those situations when the teacher will subconsciously treat someone in the class differently due to their gender. My engineering professor who is a female also had a similar experience. Her professor in graduate school was very surprised by her existence in the engineering classes. She would also be ignored when she raised her hand to answer a question a lot of times. So I think it is these small factors that add up to make the environment very uninviting. Also if you look at all the math formulas that have names after people, most of the formulas are named after men. This can be another factor that can make women feel excluded in these STEM classes.

  9. I always suspected that, of course;-)

  10. RobertFoothill

    This article was very interesting to me, because it dive into a interesting topic that I just read about in the book Whistling Vivaldi. This book talks a lot about the issue of Identity contingency, which is exactly what is being demonstrated in this article. The example from Whistling Vivaldi was that a group of men were given a physical exam, and they were divided into two groups. In one group the black and white students performed exactly the same, but in the other group the men were told before the test that the test would measure natural athletic ability. Due to the stereotype that black men are more athletic than white men, the black students in this group performed better. I believe that this is exactly what is going on in the U.S. with regards to why men score higher than women in math. The stereotype of perceiving men as more mathematically gifted, has actually caused men to start scoring higher, and has discouraged women from pursuing high-level mathematics. In my mind the only way to counteract this effect, is to teach this social phenomenon, and that way we can show our men and women that it is simply a matter of confidence in oneself, and not some mental difference that makes men better at math.

  11. I am surprised this gap is not more widely known! I completely thought girls performed at par with boys in math given all the pro-young girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) movements. Still have a ways to go clearly. The difference in performance based on country was a fascinating add, highlighting the effect culture has on girls’ mindsets about their abilities. I have taken a great deal of math classes myself and have always enjoyed the subject. That could be primarily at the encouragement of wonderful teachers and professors along the way – a critical component in helping girls think they can perform well in the sciences and combat the cultural limits. The college men and women experiment is very interesting. I am curious if they were told the gender difference favored men or just that a gender difference existed, and most of the women automatically assumed the difference meant men would do better instead of women doing better.

    • It’s good news that you weren’t aware of the MassCap. That means our country is changing and shutting the notion of math as a male domain. Which could help explain why girls are now taking math classes at about the same rate as men.

      That said, we haven’t overcome sexism. A new study found that at age 5 girls think that girls are smarter than boys. Yet by age 6 girls and boys are both more likely to think that boys are smarter, even though girls do better in class. (I was one of the girls who still thought girls were smarter at age 6.)

  12. As an Indian femme person in the Computer Science field, I can definitely relate to feeling intimidated by the sheer amount of cisgender men in my math and science classes. Going to an all-girls high school actually allowed me to learn in a more focused environment, free from the stresses and distractions that come with having male classmates. I excelled in science and mathematics, and had the grades and the AP Scores to prove it.

    After coming to college, however, I noticed a large disparity in the amount of girls in my math and science classes as compared to boys – though this disparity was especially noticeable in the Math and Computer Science classes. After going to school with only girls for so long, the fact that I was one of maybe 4 or 5 girls in my 30-40-student math class really stuck out to me, and I began to feel very self conscious.

    Initially, I presumed that this feeling of discomfort was only because I was so used to only having female classmates. However, I slowly came to realize that the discomfort was also caused by a feeling of inherent inadequacy, and a subconscious assumption that the boys in my class were and would always be better or more competent mathematicians and/or programmers than me. Obviously, this is not true, as I have yet to flunk out of college and am doing fairly well.

    However, this article clearly points out how the stereotypes in our American society negatively impact females interested in math and science in comparison to countries around the globe. It is obvious that East Asian countries that have equal and high scores in math subjects from both males and females will obviously benefit from having those statistics, and that if we adjust our societal standards to promote women in mathematics as well, our technological advancements and society could benefit from it too!

  13. Sarah Leverton

    I found this post rather intriguing. When I was younger, I hated math, assuming at the time that I didn’t enjoy the subject. However, now that I am 31 and taking college classes I find that I enjoy the math classes more and I find myself wondering why that is. “Historically, American girls have had less confidence in their math skills than boys and have taken fewer math classes.” I can say without a doubt that I did not have much confidence in my math skills. As soon as I started struggling with a new type of problem, I would get upset and felt I wasn’t smart enough. Why would I think that? I believe that there are things in American society which are suggestive to girls in the way they should behave and what their interests should be. My toys growing up tended to be Barbie’s, baby dolls, a kitchen set, plastic heels, pretend makeup, etc. All things which hint at societies expectation of me to be a wife, a mother and pretty. I remember my brothers getting Legos, Kinect’s, mini rockets, even a microscope, things suggesting the importance of science, construction, and engineering. Now, my family always encouraged me to do well in all subjects, but it always felt as if the expectation of me was different than my brothers. I grew up with my grandparents in my elementary years and one dinner something was said which I will never forget. My Papa proclaimed to me in front of the whole family, “Sarah, you are going to grow up, graduate high school, get a college degree, get married and never work a day in your life.” I was only 9, and it completely deflated me. I remember thinking to myself, well if that is going to be my life why do I need to do well in school? I don’t think Papa had ill intentions in his comment, but it made me doubt the need to study hard for a while.

    • When I was first majoring in sociology I wasn’t aware of the realm of the social psychology, which looks at how Society gets into our heads. (Social psych from a psychological perspective looks more at how the presence of others affects our minds.) It was so fascinating that I made it my emphasis. It sure explains a lot!

  14. Cecilia Rivera

    From my own experience, I have almost been conditioned to believe that my place was not in science and mathematics. As a kid, my parents always got me toys that were either baby dolls, doll houses, and an easy bake oven. All of them were the quintessential toys that almost trained and hinted at me to live my life domesticated. It was not until the third grade where my teacher encouraged us to join his after school science club. At that age, I thought it was a bit strange because the norm for us girls was to go play jump-rope or hopscotch (never have I thought these activities to be gendered). I am considerably lucky to have parents that let me stay after school and partake in the science club. We did all sorts of activities; experiments and math exercises. It was there that I began to adore science and mathematics. I know it may sound odd, but it was not until the third grade that I turned my focus to math and science activities. Instead of asking for dolls, I asked for Super Workbooks for math. Instead of ‘domesticated’ toys, I asked for a planetarium and crystal growing kits. I feel that if I was not encouraged or had the opportunity to be a part of the program that maybe I would have grown up believing that science/math isn’t for me. Now in college, I have gotten my A.S. in mathematics and currently working on a double B.S. in Geology and Sustainability Studies. What I have observed in my classes is that it is still very much male-dominated. But, I know that is changing when looking at student demographic statistics. I write this not attempting to show that I know about math and science, but more to show how I have personally been conditioned. A big part of this, in my opinion, is not instilling the thought that girls/boys are better at one thing and not the other.

  15. Personally I am a female and I suck at math. I have always been horrible in school but math is one of my worst subjects. I never really thought about it as to maybe its just all in my head? That maybe to have more of a positive outlook going into taking a test with positive mindset may possibly help my over all grade. I honestly never really compared how much smarter or less smart I was to a man until I met my recent boyfriend. I love him to death but sometimes i feel embarrassed to ask him anything school related not because i feel like he would judge me but because he just is smarter. And I can tell that it defiantly intimates me for whatever reason I could never understand why. Until reading this article actually made me put it together. Sadly I was thinking just because he is a male figure he knows more? Im not to sure if thats really what it is bit this article definitely relates to me.

    • One thing that is helpful about bringing unconscious ways of seeing to the surface is that it helps us to critique them and challenge them– Even in our own heads.

  16. I give all the credit to the female population when it comes to studying math. It has come to my understanding- from personal experience as well as spending time with a girlfriend of mine for almost three years- that women are much more resourceful than most men when it comes to seeking help and tutoring. Which leads me to saying that I respectfully disagree with the historical claim that: “American girls have had less confidence in their math skills than boys and have taken fewer math classes. But girls are also less likely to join the math, science or chess clubs, too.” I disagree with this excerpt from the post because there are plenty of women within my personal and family circle (including my girlfriend) who never focused their careers on stem majors, but when the time came to take GE credits for math and science; they weren’t always the strongest performers- but they were more driven in learning to be more resourceful with their thinking tools in finding the correct methods of studying and solutions to problems they could not understand at first. There may have been a greater influx of men who favored doing well in mathematics than women did back in the day, but women have also contributed to the many great advances in both math, science, etc. over the years. Whether there is a gender gap or not when it comes to doing well in school, I will agree with the notion that classroom results all depend on ones willingness to learn and openness of taking criticism- because sometimes I have learned that (as a man myself) I tend to be a little too stubborn or embarrassed in asking for help while women are at times the opposite. I wouldn’t say that is true for all men and women but it is something I have taken notice to between men and women during my years of both elementary and higher education.

    • Your girlfriend maybe more resourceful than you. And some women are better at math and more confident in it and some men. But on average women to have less confidence in math. We live in a culture that sees math as a male domain and people unconsciously internalize the idea.

      One of the best studies that uncovers the unconscious effects is one done with Asian women. Asians are stereotyped as good at math and girls in our society are stereotyped as not so good at it. When one group of Asian women was told they would be taking a math test to determine ethnic abilities of Asians compared with other groups their confidence rose and they did much better on the test than the women who were told they were studying gender differences.

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