New study debunks myth that boys better than girls at math

December 21, 2011

ClassroomCulture, not biology, is the most important factor when it comes to boys' and girls' mathematical skills.

This is among several new findings from a major international study authored by Jonathan Kane, professor of mathematical and computer sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and Janet Mertz, professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The authors looked at data from 86 countries to see why so few females were identified as having talent for math. A longstanding assumption had been that girls and women have less ability due to a difference in biology.

To debunk this myth, Kane and Mertz relied on a gender gap index, which compares men and women in terms of income, education, health and political participation.

When comparing this information to math scores, they found that math achievement 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 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 allowed and encouraged to participate in the job market, they are in a better position to provide homes where their children of both sexes can prosper educationally."

Kane said the findings suggest that a winning strategy for improving mathematics education the United States would be to open economic opportunities for women with the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Equal Rights Amendment.

"Many folks believe gender equity is a win-lose zero-sum game: If females are given more, males end up with less," said Mertz.  "Our results indicate that, at least for math achievement, gender equity is a win-win situation."

The study has been recently published in Notices of the American Mathematical Society.


Sara Kuhl