Gender differences in math: Cultural, not biological

June 6, 2009, 3:06 pm

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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