The long-standing notion that girls have less mathematical skills than boys due to a difference in biology is actually a myth, a new study has suggested. Instead, the Wisconsin researchers linked differences in math performance to social and cultural factors.
"We tested some recently proposed hypotheses that try to explain a supposed gender gap in math performance and found they were not supported by the data," said Janet Mertz, senior author of the study and a professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The new study, by Mertz and Jonathan Kane, a professor of mathematical and computer sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater looked at data from 86 countries, which the authors used to test the 'greater male variability hypothesis' famously expounded in 2005 by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, as the primary reason for the scarcity of outstanding women mathematicians.
That hypothesis holds that males diverge more from the mean at both ends of the spectrum and, hence, are more represented in the highest-performing sector. To measure the status of females relative to males within each country, the authors relied on a gender-gap index, which compares the genders in terms of income, education, health and political participation.
Relating these indices to math scores, they concluded that math achievement at the low, average and high end for both boys and girls tends to be higher in countries where gender equity is better. In addition, in wealthier countries, women''s participation and salary in the paid labour force was the main factor linked to higher math scores for both genders.
"We found that boys -- as well as girls -- tend to do better in math when raised in countries where females have better equality, and that''s new and important," said Kane. "It makes sense that when women are well-educated and earn a good income, the math scores of their children of both genders benefit."
Mertz pointed to sociocultural factors as the reason behind difference in mathematical performance. "This is not a matter of biology: None of our findings suggest that an innate biological difference between the sexes is the primary reason for a gender gap in math performance at any level."
"Rather, these major international studies strongly suggest that the math-gender gap, where it occurs, is due to sociocultural factors that differ among countries, and that these factors can be changed," Mertz added. The study has been recently published in Notices of the American Mathematical Society.