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Math: It's not a gender thing

June 1, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Math hasn't always been thought of as a girl thing. For decades, boys in the U.S. were considered the brainiacs when it came to mathematics, with many believing that their gender predisposed them to better understanding it. They just naturally had a head for numbers.

Jur5lenc But new research from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, seeks to dispel that myth via a meta-analysis of studies and data showing that the gap is more a cultural issue than a gender-based one. The study, published in the June 2 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sought to answer three questions: Do gender differences in math performance exist in the general population, do gender differences exist among the mathematically talented, and do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent?

As for gender differences existing in the general population, high school seemed to be the place where boys and girls separated, with girls taking fewer advanced math classes than boys. Less schooling translated into poorer test stores. But the researchers note that during this century girls are catching up, taking calculus at the same rate as boys in high school. No Child Left Behind legislation provided test scores from more than 7 million students in 10 states, and almost no differences existed between genders, including high school, and was the same in ethnic groups, including African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians and whites. Other data showed that girls and boys are about equal, too, when it comes to complex problem solving.

Are boys naturally better at math than girls? No, the study authors concluded, believing that changing societal and cultural issues are responsible for inequities in math performance. They site the Study of Exceptional Talent, an ongoing analysis of SAT tests given to mathematically advanced children 13 years old and younger. In the early 1980s boys had markedly higher scores than girls, but that disparity has narrowed considerably in recent years.

And yes, there are people of the female persuasion who possess tremendous math skills. OK, so the researchers point out that no woman yet has won the Fields Medal, also known as the Nobel Prize of mathematics, but women haven't exactly been absent from the arena. Since the 1960s a steady growth can be seen in the number of women who have been awarded PhDs in math, and women are routinely part of international math competitions.

Researchers also found that the way women are treated overall in various cultures has an impact on their math performance. Countries with obvious gender inequality found a similar disparity in math skills, and vice versa.

So keep taking those math classes and be proud of your abilities, girls. In the study, the authors wrote, "the U.S. needs to do a better job of identifying and nurturing its mathematically talented youth, regardless of their gender, race, or national origin."

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times