Gender math gap erasable, studies suggest
Posted by Guest Blogger on Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 04:53 AM
Two arguments about the maths gap, spotted by John Ray - the first from World Science:-
It’s been a long, sometimes vicious controversy: are boys better at math than girls? Some say they are, because boys tend to outscore girls in math. Opponents blame that on sexist upbringing.
Males may have an edge in spatial thinking abilities, which are useful in math, evolutionarily speaking, and this advantage may be very ancient.
Deep-rooted though this difference may be, females can surmount it with just a little work. “The so-called gender gap in math skills seems to be at least partially correlated to environmental factors,” said Paola Sapienza of The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois. “The gap doesn’t exist in countries in which men and women have access to similar resources and opportunities,” added Sapienza, summarizing the results of a new study published in the May 30 issue of the research journal Science.
In it, Sapienza and colleagues analyzed data from more than 276,000 children in 40 countries who took an internationally standardized test of math, reading, science and problem-solving. The data came from the 2003 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Programme for International Student Assessment.
The researchers found that globally, boys outperformed girls in math by 10.5 points on average on this test. But this advantage vanished in some of the most progressive and gender-equal countries such as Iceland, Sweden and Norway.
Now that the apparent good news is out, does this mean anyone who dared suggest the existence of natural gender differences in math was being sexist?
Not necessarily, if one believes other studies suggesting sexism isn’t the only reason for the math gap. Some research has attributed that gap to a deeper discrepancy in spatial reasoning abilities. One new study even suggests an evolutionary reason: better spatial reasoning in males might be related to larger range size in their ancestral environment.
This discrepancy may extend all the way down the evolutionary tree to invertebrates, according to the research, which focused on cuttlefish and appears in the May 27 online issue of the research journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“Evidence of sex differences in spatial cognition have been reported in a wide range of vertebrate species,” but never the simpler invetebrates, the authors wrote. The investigators found that male cuttlefish both range over a larger area, and have better orienting abilities than female cuttlefish. “The data conform to the predictions of the range size hypothesis,” they wrote.
Nevertheless, differences in spatial cognition are easily surmountable, if one believes yet a third study, which might help explain why ultimately girls and boys can perform equally in math. Published in last October’s issue of the journal Psychological Science, this study found that malefemale differences in some tasks requiring spatial skills are largely eliminated after both groups play a video game for 10 hours.
“On average, women are not quite as good at rapidly switching attention among different objects and this may be one reason why women do not do as well on spatial tasks,” said the lead author, University of Toronto psychology doctoral student Jing Feng. But “both men and women can improve their spatial skills by playing a video game,” he added, and “the women catch up to the men. Moreover, the improved performance of both sexes was maintained when we assessed them again after five months.” The game used was a first-person shootemup game, “Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault.”
The game “may cause the expression of previously inactive genes which control the development of neural [brain] connections that are necessary for spatial attention,” said Ian Spence, director of the university’s engineering psychology laboratory. “Clearly, something dramatic is happening in the brain” thanks to the playing.
“One important application of this research could be in helping to attract more women to the mathematical sciences and engineering,” he added. “Since spatial skills play an important role in these professions, bringing the spatial skills of young women up to the level of their male counterparts could help to change the gender balance in these fields that are so important to our economic health.”
And now for the demolition:-
Economist says girls actually better than boys at maths. Shows no sign of it herself however…
An economist in America has published research stating that girls have at least as much innate mathematical ability as boys. Paola Sapienza contends that the fact of girls almost always doing worse in maths exams results mainly from sexual discrimination. “The math gender gap can be eliminated, and it is indeed eliminated in some countries,” says Sapienza. “Our research indicates that in more gender equal societies, girls will gain an absolute advantage relative to boys.”
Sapienza and her co-authors reached their conclusion by looking at boy-vs-girl maths performance in different countries, and checking this against various measures which indicate how sexually equal each country is believed to be. The maths test figures used were from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), set up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The PISA data included standardised test results from some 276,000 children in forty countries.
As for equality, various figures were used, most notably the Gender Gap Index from the World Economic Forum. This is worked out according to various measures, such as the support given to working mums, proportion of women who work, females in politcs etc. A value of zero GGI indicates “inequality” (males totally dominating; women do no work, earn no money, don’t appear at all in politics etc). A GGI of 1 equals “equality” (women just the same as men in these areas).
Presumably there could exist a condition where the GGI approached infinity, in which the zero state was reversed and men were totally crushed. However, no country has even achieved a rating of 1 yet; in every nation on Earth, according to the GGI, women are disadvantaged to some degree.
Sapienza and her colleagues noted that in Iceland, girls actually beat boys by a small margin on the PISA maths tests. Iceland scores high on womens’ lib, at GGI 0.78. By contrast, Turkey - where the men keep their women firmly under the thumb (GGI 0.59) - showed girls lagging. The top four countries for gender equality are all in northern Europe: Sweden, Norway and Finland are the only ones which beat Iceland. (You can see the latest rankings here (PDF)
“As a European, I’m not surprised that the top countries are the northern European,” said Sapienza - who comes from Italy herself. QED, then. In the northern-Euro countries, where the human race is most nearly approaching gender equality - though not by any means there yet - girls are already outstripping boys at maths, as they often do in non-mathematical subjects. In the gender-equal society of the future, girls really could be expected to trounce the chaps on all suits. Men just aren’t as intelligent as women.
Steady on, though. You can download the PISA 2006 figures here (xls spreadsheet, table 6.2c). As far as we can make out, Turkish girls aren’t doing nearly as badly as Sapienza says (6 points down on the boys, not 23). Perhaps there’s a typo somewhere. But there are other problems: the Icelander girls’ 4-point lead is there, as noted, but it’s a statistically insignificant result. That means it’s within the variation you could expect from the sample with no bias present.
There is, however, one country where the girls thumped the boys at maths in a statistically significant fashion. But it’s not in progressive northern Europe - it’s Qatar, lying 109th in the gender-equality rankings with a GGI of 0.6 - almost as male-chauvinist as Turkey.
And what of so-progressive Finland, actually ahead of Iceland in gender equality? Boys ahead in maths by a statistically-significant 12 points. Ouch. Boys are significantly ahead in Norway, too, the second-most-gender-equal country in the world. In Germany - seventh best worldwide at gender equality - the girls are simply nowhere, a shocking 20 points down on the chaps. Indeed, very few girls anywhere lag as far behind their male contemporaries as those of progressive Germany. (Those of Austria and Colombia do, though. Both countries score higher than the USA on gender equality.)
Meanwhile, girls appear to be somewhere near equal maths performance with boys - that is, the difference between the sexes falls within expected variation - in various other places. Jordan and Kyrgyzstan rather leap to the eye, actually. Girls do fine at maths in both nations, yet these places are way down (104th and 70th) in the equality rankings.
“What are these northern European countries doing so that there is no gap?” asks Sapienza. But Norway, Germany, Denmark and Finland do show a statistically significant gap in her own chosen data set, for goodness’ sake. Unlike Qatar, Jordan and Kyrgyzstan. Even for an economist, this shows a poor grasp of mathematics.
In the end boys may or may not be innately better than girls at maths, but one thing’s for sure: associate professor Sapienza hasn’t added anything to the debate, perhaps because she herself doesn’t seem to understand maths at all.
We’ve already had a fair bit of angry mail on this one. Sample quote: “To you, one word only: Moron” [many more words then followed, and indeed another email from the same person]. However, two further points: the research apparently draws on the PISA 2003 survey rather than the 2006 one, presumably explaining the discrepancy in the Turkish maths scores. Also, another reader flags up the fact that Sapienza’s co-authors are all male, which makes this article “an excellent example of discrimination against women”. (Sapienza is the lead author, though, and none of the others have their picture at the top of the press releases.)