More Evidence That Girls Kick Ass at Math, Just Like Boys

By Eliza Strickland | June 2, 2009 8:57 am

girl mathResearchers have more evidence that takes aim at the old stereotype that boys are better at math than girls. Psychologist Janet Hyde had previously studied scores on standardized math tests in the United States, and found no difference in performance between girls and boys. Her new study expands the scope of the work by analyzing international data. She and her colleague analyzed studies from around the world on math performance along with gender inequality as measured by the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. This index measures the gap between men and women in economic opportunity, educational attainment and other socioeconomic factors [LiveScience].

They found that countries with poor gender equality, like India, had a larger gender gap in math, while in countries with excellent gender equality, like the Netherlands, girls performed as well as boys. If males really did have an innate advantage in math, the researchers note, that advantage should be obvious throughout all these cultures. Instead, the study suggests that cultural issues are the basis of the math gender gap.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also tackled a more subtle stereotype: Even if girls and boys perform equally well in math on average, is it true that more math geniuses are male? That was the idea expressed by then-Harvard president Larry Summers in 2005 when he raised an uproar by talking about males’ “intrinsic aptitude” for math. The researchers looked for evidence of such an imbalance, but found that in countries with the greatest gender equality, as many girls as boys scored above the 99th percentile–and in a few countries, there were more girls in that elite rank than boys. The “scarcity of top-scoring females in many, but not all countries .. . must be largely due to changeable sociocultural factors,” the scientists write, “not immutable, innate biological differences between the sexes.” If the differences were innate, they should show up in every culture [Newsweek]. 

To erase the last remnants of the math gender gap, the researchers say that adults should tell all girls that they can excel at math, and should nurture girls who are especially gifted in the subject. Says Hyde: “There’s a gender stereotype that boys are better at math than girls are, and stereotypes die very hard…. Teachers and parents still believe that boys are better at math than girls are” [LiveScience]. 

Related Content:
80beats: Girls and Boys Are Equally Good at Math, Study Finds

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Physics & Math
  • Rhonda

    I had no idea that this was even something that had to be researched or that was still ‘mysterious’ in any way. Perhaps this showcases my naivety! Is the target audience intended to be these other countries that still need help with gender equality?

  • ronmac

    Try sounding a little more professional in your writing by not using vulgar language in your articles. Is it really necessary in getting your point across?

  • C

    I still remember an elementary school teacher informing the class that it was a scientific fact that “boys are good at math and girls are good at reading.” It wasn’t until I got an A in a college trig class in the 11th grade (we were allowed to take one class at the local state university in high school) that I realized that I was actually good at math. Too bad it took nearly ten years to figure that out!

  • reader a

    Love the playful headline. It’s fun to see personality on the site.

  • Jo

    @ronmac: Vulgar language? Seriously? Methinks you are responding to your own perceived notion that you should be offended, rather than actually being offended. Sheesh.

  • Jenita

    I like the title too…

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    I’d like to note that math, as we are away of it anyway, evolved rather recently.

    Re: Rhonda

    “other countries?” You did notice that the good ol’ US of A was not held up as the shining example of gender equality… and a president of Harvard was held up as an example of top-level bigoted thinking.

    Smart people often think they’re too smart to believe in stereotypes or be bigoted.

  • chris

    being in the 99th percentile does not make you a math genius; it MIGHT get you into MIT in any one school year. being a genius at math of the order that summers was discussing requires being in the top 1/100th of 1%, at minimum. as with most studies, this one is something, but not everything. you people are as quick to believe in so-called “gender equality” as the people you were attacking. follow the data, period. there has been maybe one female math genius in the history of the world (kovalevskaya).

  • sue

    chris,
    add: yvonne choquet bruhat–solver of the einstein cauchy problem
    emmy noether, who was the creator of modern abstract algebra
    mary cartwright, discover of chaos in electronics and coauthor of G.H. Hardy

    modern times—plenty more, such as karen uhlenbeck, dusa macduff, alice chang, penny smith…

    considering the ubiquitous bias–often hidden at the hiring or tenure committee level–in favor of men,
    it is clear that females are More talented.

  • amy

    as a girl, my physics teacher told me that there were no successful female theoretical physicists and to drop out of the course. I brought him copies of articles on lisa meitner
    , who explained nuclear fission –with a very junior male coauhor; and maria mayer, who
    won a Nobel for her invention of the nuclear shell model.
    that shut the sexist creep up. I got the highest grade in the course–easy to do.

  • brc

    yeah cause a lot of physics teachers commonly tell their students to drop their own courses.

  • amy

    brc,
    he WAS UNEASY with female students. There were plenty of boys in his class—in 1969.
    more common than you think.

  • C Dog

    Kick-ass is “vulgar”? Lol .. loser.

  • Jason

    Sue,
    While I fully agree with you that there are plenty of talented women in math and science, I feel that your opinion on the matter is extremely biased as well. By saying that females are more talented than men, you are in fact propagating the idea of gender inequality. I am of the opinion that a person’s intelligence is based more on natural ability as well as their educational background, NOT their race or gender. If you are truly for equality then the last thing you should do is stoop to their level of ignorance.

  • sue

    jason,
    clearly, you missed the irony, and the parody of previous sexist logic.

  • USHIVON

    IT WAS A SCIENTIFIC FACT WHEN I WAS AT SCHOOL THAT BOYS WERE BETTER AT CERTAIN SUBJECTS THAN GIRLS, SUCH AS MATHS. NOW IT IS ALL DEBUNKED, HOW MANY OTHER SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN FACTS WILL BE DEBUNKED?
    I WAS AT AN ALL GIRLS GRAMMAR AND WE HAD A VERY HIGH OPINION OF OURSELVES AND DID NOT LET THIS BOTHER US WHEN WE FELT WE WERE TALENTED AT THE BOYS’ SUBJECTS.
    The questions that need to be asked are , if the boys are doing rather worse than girls at the moment and the skills they used to excel at are no longer being excelled at, what has really changed? Too many female teachers, compared to male teachers, mixed classes, different teaching styles or an oppressed male species? At one time, girls did better in all girl classes, now boys do better in all boys classes. We do need to look at the reasons why boys are losing their edge. Have males have lost their self esteem? Perhaps our culture tolerates girls chattering more than boys hum0ur!!

  • mmc

    amy and brc,
    amy’s story is completely believable to me. I am female and I went to a school that was majority male in the early 80s and such attitudes were not uncommon, even then. One of my mechanical engineering profs gave different grades to the female students for the same work and the same answers. When I confronted him on my grade, he said it was because I had clearly copied the male students’ answers. If that were true, he should have failed me, not given a B+, but I didn’t have the strong personality to confront him and merely went away fuming.

  • hackenkaus

    Lubos Motl and Steve Hsu will be very upset when they read this. They may even cry.

  • James

    USHIVON: “IT WAS A SCIENTIFIC FACT WHEN I WAS AT SCHOOL THAT BOYS WERE BETTER AT CERTAIN SUBJECTS THAN GIRLS, SUCH AS MATHS. NOW IT IS ALL DEBUNKED, HOW MANY OTHER SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN FACTS WILL BE DEBUNKED?”

    As many as fail to be supported by data.

    I’m glad that you felt no reason to be bothered by the supposed superiority of boys, but what does that have to do with the confirmation, in hard numbers, of the scientific fact that there is nothing to be bothered about in the first place?

  • sue

    hackenkauss,
    why? they already know the string theorist lisa randall–recently, the most cited theoretical physicist in the world.

  • brosna

    I saw this headline on an article about 4th grade school tests in the Oregonian about 1994 “Girls Better at Reading, Boys Better at Math”. Closer inspection of the averages revealed that girls’ reading scores were higher than girls’ math scores, which were in turn (considerably) higher than boys’ math scores, with boys’ reading scores the lowest.

    I wonder how often the usual stereotype actually means something like this?

  • hackenkaus

    sue,
    They are both big fans of the theory that males are more represented on the extreme tails of the distribution, which is contradicted by the results of this study. The existence of females like Lisa Randall who are obviously way smarter than them, is something they must deal with in various ways. In the case of Motl, he dealt with it by running away and hiding out in the Czech republic.

  • sue

    hakenkaus,
    Thanks. pseudoscience is so-often hypnotically seductive in its simplistic pseudogenerality. Thus, even brilliant people became ardent nazis. The extreme tail theory was a theory that was a deliberate fraud, as early iq testing showed that females were superior at all tasks–especially spacial skills. They had to search long and hard for spacial tests that malrs did better on.

    Those tests were weighted to tasks in which experience with certain toys matter a great deal–and it has recently been rediscovered that some practice makes a huge difference in the performance of females here.

    Are girls smarter than boys? No, I think–but early 20th century girls were more practiced at sitting quietly. Spacisl IQ tests are extremely sensitive to anxiety. With the introduction –in the USA–of medis coverage that girls are spacially inferior, girls did perform more poorly–and this has been shown to be due to anxiety.

    I wonder if the pooer performance of males on verbal tests is similar? After all, Shakespeare was a male!

  • sue

    one should also note that it was well-known in the early 20th century that central european jews were inferior in iq snd math skills to WASPS. Much of this “research” came from the same WASP men (Harvard was a huge player) that claimed the same inferiority for females. They argued that
    both groups were genetically inferior.

    Now, we have “The Bell Curve”, also from Harvard.
    Plus ca changr….

  • John

    Do research to beef up your personal bias and you’d get the desired results all the time. Who were the researchers? No Bias?
    There is every chance that you could be knocking each other over faulty biased data. Get real. Vulgar language to enforce personal bias? It happens all the time.

  • http://www.theladybugandthelion.com Lara

    How do you define a math prodigy? I thought that people like Tian Boedihardjo and others that have the ability to do university level math at a young age are math prodigies, and that more of those are male. Scoring in the 99th percentile of a standardized math test doesn’t sound like the same thing…

  • penny

    lara,
    more male children are given the help or encouragement to do this. But, many girls –with that help or encouragement can. In my childhood, I was reading at the high school level when I was six–but nobody gave me an algebra
    book etc. It was assumed that I would learn math
    at a normal time in school. Result, I didn’t learn calculus until I was 12, when I met a cute boy who had learned it.

    Boys get attention. I started uni at 15, and made sure that No media attention was allowed–it would have been a social disaster. The boy was in the newspapers and dropped out from the MIT
    phd program at 19. I had emotional issues and got my phd at 22–solving a famous problem.

    Some people thrive on media attention, like Terry Tao–others, such as one female math prodigy out of oxford, and one male prodigy out of caltech are destroyed.

    my conjecture is that most girls are too socially intelligent to want the prodigy label–and most parents of girls are not interested in labeling their child this way.

    In any case, many great mathematicians were not prodigies.

  • http://motls.blogspot.com/ Luboš Motl

    I was just voting into the European Parliament. When I left the school, all the 39 tickets except one that I submitted were spread across the road by the wind.

    Fortunately, a class of small girls was nearby and they helped me to clean the mess. Together with their (female) teacher, we also gave special thanks to the winner of the contest who collected the highest number of sheets of paper. ;-)

    The girl on the picture is cute and obviously relatively intelligent.

    However, Janet Hyde’s science is just nonsense. Some added statements are clearly fabricated. But the old problems with her work are discussed e.g. here:

    http://motls.blogspot.com/2008/07/janet-hyde-boys-girls-in-math-not.html

    The higher variance of the boys’ distribution is clear, especially for kids above 15 years when the difference expands in the full force. Almost all winners of mathematical olympiads are boys, no woman has won a physics or chemistry Nobel prize for 45+ years, and so on, and so on. This difference of variances, which plays a key role in the vastly pro-male ratio in the very high percentiles, has well understood physiological, evolutionary, and psychological reasons, and has been demonstrated in thousands contexts.

    I am sure that everyone who observes the world around her must be aware of these facts.

  • Thalia

    Lubos, except that while in the U.S. the math olympiads are won by boys, in Europe that is not the case. For example in Hungary many of the top mathematicians were/are female. Maybe Eastern European women have different physiology or psychology from American women?

  • Christian Lux

    The international mathematical olympiads consist of a very difficult math problem-solving competition bringing together the most brilliant teenager mathematical talents in the world. It takes place every year.
    Even in the countries which most favor female participation at the mathematical olympiads (like Russia or Bulgaria) there are only 12% to 24% females, which means that males still make up 76% to 84% of exceptionally talented young mathematicians, much less in other countries. On a combined international basis, nearly all golden medals at mathematical olympiads go to boys. Girls just cannot compete against boys at this level.
    The reason why there is such an overwhelming male representation in fields like top level mathematics, theoretical physics or astrophysics is actually very simple. It can be explained by the the fact that you need a IQ of at least 3 or 4 standard deviations above the mean of 100 (in other words a IQ of at least 150 or 160) to master the most advanced topics in these disciplines. Now there are numerous studies showing that the standard deviation of males IQ is significantly larger than the standard deviation of females IQ. If you add the fact that the IQ distribution is approximately normal (or gaussian) then you have a very simple explanation of the huge male over-representation in those areas.
    Note that exactly the same factors probably explain why there is a huge male over-representation at top levels in games of pure abstract intelligence like chess or checkers. For example, according to the FIDE database of April, 2009 (available free online) there is only 1 female in the best 100 chess players worldwide (1%) and 21 in the first 1000 (2.1%) whereas females represent 7.6% of the overall FIDE chess rated population of about 100,000 players. All the big chess tournaments (like world championships for example) are open to both genders but as the result of the huge gender gap female-only chess tournaments had to be set up in addition to all the other ones open to both genders.
    incidentally this male imbalance is not restricted to humans. For example male rats perform more accurately than female rats on tasks that require spatially organized representations. No social factors can explain better male rats performance, certainly not male rats chauvinistic behavior.

  • Christian Lux

    Sorry, typo in previous blog. Read “…. much more in other countries…. ”

    The international mathematical olympiads consist of a very difficult math problem-solving competition bringing together the most brilliant teenager mathematical talents in the world. It takes place every year.
    Even in the countries which most favor female participation at the mathematical olympiads (like Russia or Bulgaria) there are only 12% to 24% females, which means that males still make up 76% to 84% of exceptionally talented young mathematicians, much more in other countries. On a combined international basis, nearly all golden medals at mathematical olympiads go to boys. Girls just cannot compete against boys at this level.
    The reason why there is such an overwhelming male representation in fields like top level mathematics, theoretical physics or astrophysics is actually very simple. It can be explained by the the fact that you need a IQ of at least 3 or 4 standard deviations above the mean of 100 (in other words a IQ of at least 150 or 160) to master the most advanced topics in these disciplines. Now there are numerous studies showing that the standard deviation of males IQ is significantly larger than the standard deviation of females IQ. If you add the fact that the IQ distribution is approximately normal (or gaussian) then you have a very simple explanation of the huge male over-representation in those areas.
    Note that exactly the same factors probably explain why there is a huge male over-representation at top levels in games of pure abstract intelligence like chess or checkers. For example, according to the FIDE database of April, 2009 (available free online) there is only 1 female in the best 100 chess players worldwide (1%) and 21 in the first 1000 (2.1%) whereas females represent 7.6% of the overall FIDE chess rated population of about 100,000 players. All the big chess tournaments (like world championships for example) are open to both genders but as the result of the huge gender gap female-only chess tournaments had to be set up in addition to all the other ones open to both genders.
    incidentally this male imbalance is not restricted to humans. For example male rats perform more accurately than female rats on tasks that require spatially organized representations. No social factors can explain better male rats performance, certainly not male rats chauvinistic behavior.

  • Bruce

    Upthread, “sue” claims that prior assertions that boys are naturally more able in mathematics than girls were “pseudoscience”. If that is so, then by the same token, the research reported here is also pseudoscience. It observes no statistically significant differences in scores between girls and boys in certain mathematics tests in certain countries at certain ages, and concludes from this very inadequate information that there are no innate differences between girls and boys. Important variables are simply being ignored.

    What differences are there between girls and boys in classroom experience, parental support, and amount of homework effort that might affect test scores? Not considered. There’s plenty of published evidence of differences in these potential factors, and evidence that these factors have changed over time, so why ignore it?

    What differences between boys and girls appear after high school? Not considered. There’s clear evidence that becoming a “maths genius” involves hard work, and there’s published evidence that women are less willing than men to put in that work. Why ignore this?

    Are there ceiling effects in the tests employed? Not considered. Evidence that a ceiling effect may be involved is the dramatic contrast between the results of these studies and the results of the annual mathematics olympiads (as discussed by others above). Further evidence is the documented evidence of a “dumbing down” of many maths tests over recent decades. Why is all this ignored?

    The conclusion drawn is quite unwarranted, given the glaring gaps in the evidence.

    This is typical in social sciences: people with a prior ideological commitment conduct studies designed to “prove” what they hope is true, and then announce their conclusions boldly, presumably hoping that their audience will fail to notice very obvious flaws in their method. If the conclusions conform to what is currently “politically correct”, the research, no matter how seriously flawed, receives wide publicity in the popular press, and soon achieves the status of unchallengeable truth, though it may very well be completely false.

    As Christian Lux notes, animal models show sex differences in psychological traits, and these differences must be biological and cannot be cultural. Therefore, the research trumpeted in the article above is quite likely to be false in its conclusions.

  • andi

    girls are way smarter than boys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! like totally!! sorry boys!!!!!

  • Sue

    Iam female and have always been better at math than writing or verbal skills.The powers that be want to keep a social order so they started these sterotypes.Women in the Middle East and Asia
    out number western women in math by a large extent.

    When I hear the soundbite ‘ they’re fighting for your freedom’ I have to laugh because women in the west are still so controlled by sterotypes that they have far to go to reach their male counterparts.Freedom means living without oppressive sterotypes.No freedom can come when one
    group is so under social myths.Worse than any burqa is a burqa on your mind.

  • Zack

    I would like to address the animal example. While it is fact that male rats perform better than female rats, that can’t possibly reflect on humans, can it? Are you saying we are still just animals, the same as rats?

    I have one word for you: Evolution.

    We are not rats. Thus we cannot be compared to rats. Humans are the most advanced creature on this planet, we are diffrent than the animals, our brains are much further evolved. So, please don’t say “Because male rats are better than female rats then male humans are better than female humans”. That simply does not compute. Thanks.

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  • Dave

    this is a very speculative interpretation: if girls and boys score equally in a country, than they tell it’s because there is no effect of culture, and if girls score worse then there IS an effect of culture.
    This is faulty reasoning, because why wouldn’t there be a positive effect on girls and negative effect in the netherlands and no effect in India, or just another effect.
    This article is, to me, proof that psychology about gender equality is oftentimes not science, it is merely trying to give politically correct answers. There are even some people who got excluded from the scientific community for suggesting males are better at some tasks than women!

  • Forshorn

    All journalism praises girls, sometimes at the expense of boys and sometimes, as in this article, indicating that “girls and boys are equal.” Many books are released each month trumpeting female superiority, a popular cultural trope.

    But this is not science, data, or anything of the kind.

    For one thing, math ability or verbal ability has nothing to do with school performance. It can only be measured under controlled conditions, adjusting for various factors, using a large sample, etc. The study referenced in this poorly-written article, which misquotes Larry Summers (his comment was a hypothetical, not an assertion), is a METASTUDY. That is, a study of studies.

    Here’s what’s wrong about this study. First, the questions are badly formed: “Using contemporary data from the U.S. and other nations, we address 3 questions: Do gender differences in mathematics performance exist in the general population? Do gender differences exist among the mathematically talented? Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent?” These are not research questions. The first one is extremely general and posits a binary: either no gender differences exist among the general population or some do. Second question: how do you define the “mathematically talented”? Einstein failed math. Seriously, this is vague language for research. Ditto for the third question. Good research questions are not qualitative judgments. They are numerically provable questions that don’t involve vague categories like talent. You may as well ask if girls who do math are prettier than boys who do math.

    So, how did these researchers, a psychologist and a doctor who researches cancer, conclude that there is no appreciable difference in math ability? “Furthermore, data from several studies indicate that greater male variability with respect to mathematics is not ubiquitous. Rather, its presence correlates with several measures of gender inequality. Thus, it is largely an artifact of changeable sociocultural factors, not immutable, innate biological differences between the sexes.” If indeed greater male variability (more geniuses and retards) is not ubiquitous (they should have said “universal”), that does not mean it is not inherent. They are basically saying that in cases in which boys do better you can explain this away by “gender inequality.” Now, how do you judge gender inequality? Maybe by education, salary, or whatever. Let’s just say that questions of inequality are prone to all kinds of biases. Furthermore, correlation does not mean causation – as everyone who’s taken the most rudimentary research methods course should know.

    The study is junk science. One of its authors, Janet Hyde, a feminist scholar and veteran gap-buster, is also the author of two other junky studies:

    [2] JS. Hyde, S. M. Lindberg, M. C. Linn, A. B. Ellis, C. C. Williams, “Gender similarities characterize math performance” Science 321, 494 (2008)

    [3] J. S. Hyde, E. Fennema, S. Lamon, “Gender differences in mathematics performance: A meta-analysis” Psychol. Bull. 107, 139 (1990).

    She’s been working at this gap-busting mill for a while. Both studies generated a lot of dopey articles like the one you just read with silly anecdotal passages: “Suzy can do quadratic equations in her head while riding a unicycle.” Also, they’ve been debunked.

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