Science Opinion

This Just In: Girls are Boys’ Equals in Math

By Richard Whitmire — January 05, 2010 3 min read
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Okay, for anyone following state test scores over the past several years, you already knew that. But it comes at a good time -- [just when the White House is announcing a $250 million STEM initiative.](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/05/AR2010010503981.html?hpid=moreheadlines)

But, [here you have it from the American Psychological Association](http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-136-1-103.pdf). Take that, Larry Summers. Actually, Summers wouldn’t dispute these findings. He was talking about the outer fringe of the talented and untalented.

From their press release:

> WASHINGTON - Girls around the world are not worse at math than boys, even though boys are more confident in their math abilities, and girls from countries where gender equity is more prevalent are more likely to perform better on mathematics assessment tests, according to a new analysis of international research.
> “Stereotypes about female inferiority in mathematics are a distinct contrast to the actual scientific data,” said Nicole Else-Quest, PhD, a psychology professor at Villanova University, and lead author of the meta-analysis. “These results show that girls will perform at the same level as the boys when they are given the right educational tools and have visible female role models excelling in mathematics.”
> The results are reported in the latest issue of Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association. The finding that girls around the world appear to have less confidence in their mathematical abilities could help explain why young girls are less likely than boys to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
> Else-Quest and her fellow researchers examined data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Programme for International Student Assessment, representing 493,495 students ages 14-16 from 69 countries. Both studies’ results were released in 2003, and not all countries participated in both assessments. The TIMSS focuses on basic math knowledge, while the PISA test assesses students’ ability to use their math skills in the real world. The researchers felt these two tests offered a good sampling of students’ math abilities.

State test scores are not the only indicator here. Ever since high schools started steering more girls into upper level math and science classes (thank you, AAUW...it’s so rare I have something nice to say about that group, I have to work it in) it’s been clear that girls are the equal of boys in these subjects.

Unfortunately, the issue doesn’t end there. The problem is not girls’ high school preparation; it’s what women choose to pursue in college. Far too many highly qualified young women opt to steer clear of math/engineering/sciences in college. [As a study of the California higher education system revealed](http://www.cpec.ca.gov/completereports/2006reports/06-08.pdf), a rising percentage of female undergraduates can actually lead to a decline in the number of engineering majors.

If universities are to be mostly female instituations, then there’s a national economic interest in encouraging more young women to take on these majors and careers. Unfortunately, the response to this is often ideological: Let’s use Title 9 to force colleges to open up their math and chemistry departments! Actually, I like that idea. It would make a great Colbert segment.

Are we doomed to goofy ideological initiatives? Actually, I have a good feeling about wise leadership here. [Consider these studies just released by the American Economic Association.](http://www.whyboysfail.com/2010/01/04/economists-weigh-in-on-gender-gap-issues/) The focus is on practical, provable ways to lure more women into the sciences.

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The opinions expressed in Why Boys Fail are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.