Attitudes toward gender affects math performance by girls

June 21, 2008 | By | 1 Reply More

It is often observed that girls do not perform as well as boys in mathematics. This difference is often overstated and it’s cause is often highly debated.  Many people have suggested that the basis for this difference is essentially biological.

It is now well established that a society’s attitude toward gender will significantly affect the performance of its girls in mathematics.  That was the result of a study described in the May 30, 2008 edition of Science (available only to subscribers online) in an article called “Culture, Gender and Math.”  That study attempted to analyze the cause of the “gender gap” (the difference between the scores of boys and girls) in mathematics.  The conclusion of this comprehensive study is that “Social conditioning and gender biased environments can have a very large effect on test performance.”

The study examined cultural attitudes regarding women in various countries and compared them to math achievements of girls in those same countries.  It found that the gender gap in math tends to disappear in more gender-equal societies.

The authors of the study commented that the math gender gap has been narrowing over time in the United States.

These conclusions dovetail well with the concerns raised by Mary Pipher, in her book, Reviving Ophelia.


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Category: Culture, Education, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erika Price says:

    Some studies have suggested the same basic idea for racial minorities. The effect may go to an even greater extreme- just being prompted to provide their race can cause black participants to perform markedly worse on math tests. The solution to this seems obvious- before a big test, don't make race a salient issue. But of course, when it comes to teaching those math skills in the first place, it isn't that simple.

    One of the often-referenced reasons for the problem of math performance in girls was that girls received an unfair math education. Teachers tended to bail out girls who flubbed or struggled with a math problem, while boys received hearty encouragement to tough it out and solve the problem for themselves. This results, the research says, in girls with very low expectations for themselves in math, who therefore perform pretty poorly.

    But now most teachers have a keen awareness of the disparity in the way girls and boys were treated. I just hope teacher don't over-compensate for this by focusing too much on girls, harming the boys the process, or making the girls feel self-conscious for getting so much math help. It's hard to make someone behave in an unprejudiced manner- even well meaning teachers.

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