Gender differences in math: Cultural, not biological

This report Frinom the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, citing an article in the June 1 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that differences between boys’ and girls’ performance on standardized mathematics tests correlates with the level of gender equity and other socio-cultural factors in the country in which the test was taken.
The study’s co-author says:

“There are countries where the gender disparity in math performance doesn’t exist at either the average or gifted level. These tend to be the same countries that have the greatest gender equality,” article co-author Janet Mertz, an oncology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a university news release.[…]

“If you provide females with more educational opportunities and more job opportunities in fields that require advanced knowledge of math, you’re going to find more women learning and performing very well in mathematics,” Mertz said.

The study goes on to cite the US as a country where there is a relatively high degree of gender equity and hence a relatively equal performance on standardized tests between boys and girls, with more and more girls taking advanced courses in science and math. But, importantly, the study also warns that

“U.S. culture instills in students the belief that math talent is innate; if one is not naturally good at math, there is little one can do to become good at it,” Mertz said. “In some other countries, people more highly value mathematics and view math performance as being largely related to effort.”

This is a point well worth noting. What will it take for the culture in the US to get away from the idea that you’re either born with mathematical ability or born without it — in other words, mathematical predestination?

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7 responses to “Gender differences in math: Cultural, not biological

  1. Rob Huffstedtler

    It’s not just mathematics. The idea that people are born with basically immutable abilities and deficits. Carol Dweck has some good stuff on overcoming a talen mindset and moving to a mindset that sees accomplishment as a function of effort.

  2. Jami

    I’ve just decided to go back and get my teaching license for math, and have found that I am the only person applying with a math background. Boggles my mind!

    • Jami, what are the other people’s backgrounds in, if not math? Just general education? Science?

      • Jami

        I’m not real sure… I know there are quite a few English people. English seems to be the most popular to go back and get a teaching license for. (At least at liberal arts schools)

        Just in case you don’t know about it… there is an awesome program out there that just started this year for people who want to go back and get their teaching license in math and science in Indiana.
        I would have applied had I known about it last year!

  3. Will Farris

    Mathematical ability is extremely salient in one’s success therewith. We are not all John Nash’s Steve Hawking’s, or von Neuman’s are we? In fact, almost nobody that I know of. The problem is one of barrier’s to entry. Everybody wants an easier road to riches, and pure math does not pay. Period. It is an avocation for most.

    Even if, as a group, females were as left-brained, quantitatively, and spacially minded as their male counterparts, why would they really want to pursue that side of life? It typically does not make them satisfied with their lives, generally speaking.

    The girls I taught math to in high school just did not take particular delight in learning number science the way they would with art, drama, music, religion, politics, dance, cooking, decorating, entertaining, family relations, babies, and all those other things.

  4. Mike

    I don’t think that the issue with women and math is so much that the culture is prodding people to believe that if you were not born with it, but that they do not perceive the importance of overcoming any physiological predispositions which may or may not exist, along with cultural mores which also may exist. As a society in general, there is no longer a push to achieve above and beyond one’s peers, but rather to achieve enough to attain material gain and personal satisfaction. In other words, it seems that society has been so placated with “stuff” and “pleasure” that they have been “dumbed down” while the rest of the world, who wants to be where we are, have decided that picking up the technical mantle and running with it is the key to success. They have learned that knowledge is power and they have decided, both men and women, to overcome the obstacles necessary to gain that knowledge so that they can have the power and the reward that goes along with it.

    • Will Farris

      Mike, you hit the nail on the head and drove it through the board! It is the downside of capitalism, the least economic evil of all the other systems out there in that it at least allows for the greed factor (Winston Churchill quote). But there is a law of diminishing returns going on. Once a certain level of satisfaction is reached then any additional effort for an incremental gain is deemed by most as not worth it. Which I guess is OK as long as there are plenty of people who do go on further and achieve ever greater things to make up for the government and society covering for everybody else’s missteps. it is very obvious that the spirit of America is waning (historic cycles are inevitable) right now, and probably nothing short of something of a revamping of the very foundations of govenment will correct the situation.