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Culture, Gender, and Math

By Eduwonkette — May 30, 2008 1 min read

Larry Summers’ fatal gaffe, in which he suggested that innate differences between men and women may explain why fewer women succeed in math and science careers, set of the latest round of the gender math wars. Though many are in a tizzy over a “boy crisis” in education, as early as the fall of kindergarten, boys outperform girls in math at the top of the distribution (i.e. if we compare girls at the 95th percentile with boys at the 95th percentile). By the end of third grade, boys outperform girls in math not just at the top, but throughout the entire distribution. These early differences persist through high school.

To pull apart culture and biology, authors of a study in this week’s Science analyzed data from PISA, an international assessment which tested students in 40 countries (see USA Today coverage here). The authors linked PISA data to survey data on gender attitudes (questions like “Should women work outside the home?” and “Is it more important for a man to get a college education than a woman?”), rates of women’s political and economic participation, and the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index.

The gender gap in math varies substantially in size across countries, which suggests that innate factors alone cannot explain this gap. In more gender-neutral societies, girls do as well as boys in math. In Iceland, Sweden, and Norway, which are characterized by more gender equity, girls do as well or better in math. The largest gap was in Turkey. The authors also found that the reading gap favoring girls was widest in countries with more gender equity.

Here’s the kicker - in a finding likely to incite those who believe girls’ gains have come at the expense of boys, the authors found that overall scores in math and reading were highest in countries offering more advantages to women, and lowest in those with more gender inequities. Said study author Paola Sapienza, “This is important because it shows that advances for girls do not come at the expense of boys.”

Gender equitable countries are also different in many other ways, so it’s possible that other factors explain these findings. Nonetheless, these findings serve as a potent reminder that the gender gap in math achievement is not driven by nature alone.

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