Are there really gender differences in math ability?

Short answer: no.

I’m quite pleased to have run across this article from June 2008 in the U.S. News and World Report that disproves the theory that boys are better at math than girls. According to University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Janet Hyde, the study’s leader:

[We sifted] through mountains of data—including SAT results and math scores from 7 million students who were tested in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act. Whether they looked at average performance, the scores of the most-gifted children or students’ ability to solve complex math problems, girls measured up to boys. Although girls take just as many advanced high-school math courses today as boys do, and women earn 48 percent of all mathematics bachelor’s degrees, the stereotype persists that girls struggle with math, says Hyde. Not only do many parents and teachers believe this, but scholars also use it to explain the dearth of female mathematicians, engineers and physicists at the highest levels. Cultural beliefs like this are “incredibly influential,” she says, making it critical to question them. “Because if your mom or your teacher thinks you can’t do math, that can have a big impact on your math self concept.”

While I wasn’t great at math (and to this day still wonder if I have dyscalculia because I have difficulty with mental math operations), I kept at it because I liked the challenge. It was the one of the few classes I really had to work hard at. I took 4 years of college bound math courses in high school when the requirement was only two at the time, and the calculus for engineers classes, even though I could wimp out and take the classes for biology majors. I wanted to see if I could handle it with the boys. Though it wasn’t easy, I was pleasantly surprised that I could understand calculus; however, it was really helpful to have some great study groups with a few really smart and handsome engineering majors (yeah, really, not kidding on the handsome part – they definitely made study sessions more interesting).

While my mother never had much to say about my abilities in particular or girls’ abilities in general (good, bad or otherwise), I think that was a good thing. I never had anyone telling me what I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. Apparently that’s not so for everyone. While I’m not an uber-feminist, I did always pride myself on the fact I chose a math- and science-intensive career. I wasn’t in competition with the boys, but it sure did tickle me to know that I could hold my own in the math and science arena. I know my girls are going to do just fine in the math area, barring any unforseen mathematical learning disability like dyscalculia. With an engineering major for a dad, and a science major for a mom, I think the girls have an extra advantage in the math department. For my girls, knowing I had some weaknesses in the areas of math (at least mental math ability), I’ve made it a point to have lots of building materials and math manipulatives. I think early exposure to math and science is a key factor in whether or not girls develop comfort and skill around those subjects.

So, mama’s don’t let your girls grow up thinking they can’t do well in math, because that just doesn’t add up.

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2 Responses to Are there really gender differences in math ability?

  1. Laura says:

    I also have a hard time keeping numbers in my head, don’t know my times tables very well, but understand mathematical theory well. I ended up majoring in computer science, and minoring in math. However if I wasn’t allowed to use a calculator I’m sure I would have had a very different career path (well maybe not at the moment since I’m a SAHM). It is odd too because my dad is like a human calculator.

    But I think the trend is more and more toward female’s being the academics (at most colleges the population is more weighted towards females) and I’m sure the math and sciences will start to reflect this trend soon.

  2. raisingsmartgirls says:

    I find it very interesting that there are one of two things can happen with math difficulties in people. Either you let them get in the way of your self-concept, and assume you are “bad at math” and abandon it at an early age, or you realize “while I’m not great at it, I will work on it because something I want to do involves math”. For me, it was biotechnology. I can calculate on paper a lot of things, I just can’t hold on to the numbers very long to manipulate them in my head and I didn’t feel like that was enough to not keep trying. I personally feel that barring a learning disorder, you get good at math (like anything else) by practicing.

    I do agree with you that the trend is moving towards women in academics. But sadly, a lot of women in academic science careers still face some discrimination based on their gender. So yeah, they can go after the career they want to a point, but don’t get the really prime positions, or get overlooked because someone gave them recommendations based on their personality, rather than their work achievements.

    I was lucky not to have that kind of experiences and always felt treated fairly and respectfully, but then again, I was in the clinical side of things, not academics. But that’s not every woman’s experience.

    That is the one of the posts that’s been brewing in my mind. Girls can do anything they want, but has society REALLY caught up with them yet. And, on top of it, when they get into these science/technology/engineering/academic careers, everything gets turned topsy turvy when the women have children. It becomes increasingly complex to work, care for children and make time for keeping a home and nurturing a marriage. No doubt it can be done, but there is really a lot of challenge and it’s exhausting.

    But that’s not a topic I’m ready to tackle just yet.

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