Math in the News: The Gender Gap is Closed for Business

Math made the headlines last Thursday, with an article about a recent study in the journal Science, which discredits the perceived Gender Gap in mathematics. The AP article can be found here – if you can’t bring yourself to read the article, you can also watch the following clip from NBC Nightly News on the same topic.

The AP article offers a more thorough discussion of the study, which examined standardized test scores for more than 7 million American students. Given the breadth of the study, one hopes it will help dispel any lingering notion girls may have that they are some how innately unable to measure up to boys in math. We do, however, have a ways to go before math professor Barbie starts flying off the shelves.

Any news that can help persuade women to enter mathematically demanding fields is good news. Not only because America needs to retain all the talent it can, but also because every math department party tends to be a huge stag fest. Single ladies, if you’re ever looking for a man, look no further than the event calendar for your university’s local math department. But watch out, if things keep trending the way this article is suggesting, that well will dry up in no time.

One important point that the article makes is that the standardized tests from which the data were collected did not seem to adequately test complex problem solving. This is natural, considering how poorly we are educating students in mathematics. It may be easy, therefore, to dismiss the results of this study with an argument that girls haven’t actually caught up. Instead, the tests have merely gotten easier.

To refute this, I humbly present the following article, regarding a similar study, also published in the journal Science, but with decidedly less fanfare.

Let me highlight the main points of the article:

In search of bridges across the math gender gap, Sapienza and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 276,000 children in 40 countries … 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…

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.”

Are girls as smart as boys? No. Apparently they are smarter. Of course, any girl will tell you such a conclusion is hardly worthy of publication – they already knew as much.

Kudos to these studies for trying to break down some barriers to entry for mathematics. Let’s hope the boys can keep up.

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