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Cultural Attitudes Affect Girls' Math Performance, Analysis Finds

Susan Notes: The debate continues.

By Lila Guterman

The debate over why girls do worse than boys on math testsâ€"is it their nature or their nurture?â€"has continued in the three years since Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard University, provoked an uproar by coming down on the side of nature. He suggested that the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering might reflect innate differences in mathematics ability. Now a new analysis finds that national culture, not innate ability, can account for some test differences.

Four scholars found that on math tests, the gap between girls and boys shrinks to nil in countries with greater parity between sexes, measured by factors such as economic activity. Their study appears in the new issue of Science.

The researchers, who hail from three universities in Illinois and one in Italy, compared the results of more than 276,000 15-year-olds in 40 countries who took a test in 2003 run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, called the Programme for International Student Assessment. On average, girls scored 2 percent lower than boys in mathematics.

But looking beyond the averages, the researchers found that the results varied by country. And when they compared the gaps in mathematics scores to various measures of gender inequality, they found a possible reason for those national variations. In the countries that had the greatest gender inequality, such as Turkey and Korea, girls tended to fare worse compared to boys. In countries with more equality, such as Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, the gender gap in mathematics test scores disappears. The United States ranked in the middle of the pack on both gender inequality and the mathematics-test-score gap.

In addition to economic activity, the gender-equality measures included women's education, female political participation, and responses to several survey questions, such as one asking whether respondents agree with the following statement: "When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women."

Paola Sapienza, one of the authors, who is an associate professor of finance at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, said her team did not know whether gender inequality caused the gap in mathematics test scoresâ€"perhaps by undermining girls' self-confidence or by depriving them of female role models in scienceâ€"or if the two were simply correlated.

What is clear, Ms. Sapienza says, is that girls are not simply worse than boys in math. "The main lesson I take from this analysis is that the gender gap in mathematics in favor of boys is not a universal feature," she says.

Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard, called the analysis a "particularly compelling" demonstration of that lesson. She and others have done similar work looking at math scores within the United States.

— Lila Guterman
Chronicle of Higher Education


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