Are Boys Really Better at Math?

A new study sends an important message about the myth of boys’ superior math ability.

Mothers tend to underestimate the mathematics abilities of their daughters and overestimate the aptitude of their sons. (Photo: Richard Lewisohn/Getty Images)

On January 14, 2005, Lawrence H. Summers, then President of Harvard University, told an audience of conference-goers that fewer women pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers because when it comes to math and science, men tend to be at the highest end of the ability spectrum. 

Though Summers’ remarks about innate gender differences didn’t go over well, and eventually cost him his presidential post, the possible causes and solutions of the persistent gender gap in math and science remain a subject of heated debate. 

Research has shown that both boys and girls as young as six years old believe that math is a subject for boys. The stereotype persists into adulthood as mothers underestimate the mathematics abilities of their daughters and overestimate the aptitude of their sons.

Research has shown that both boys and girls as young as six years old believe that math is a subject for boys. 

A recent study by Jonathan Kane, math and computer science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and Janet Mertz, oncology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put the myth of male math smarts to the test.

Analyzing math scores from international standardized exams taken by hundreds of thousands of 4th and 8th graders in 86 different countries, Kane and Mertz found no significant differences overall between boys’ and girls’ scores.

Though previous studies suggested that boys were more likely than girls to be either the best or the worst in math, overall gender differences in variation weren’t found in this study either.

What Kane and Mertz did discover were significant differences in the range of scores from country to country, suggesting that sociocultural factors, rather than innate biological differences, underlay math achievement gaps. 

In addition, although national income, school type, and religion didn’t seem to be related to math performance, gender equity clearly was. In countries where women were more likely to be well-educated and earn a good income, both boys and girls performed better in math.

Dr. Mertz shared the significance of these findings in a recent interview with TakePart. “Many folks believe gender equality is a win-lose situation,” she began. “If women are given more rights, men lose some of the advantages they currently have. Thus, many men are against increasing gender equality...Our finding that boys’math scores tend to improve at least as much, if not more, than girls’as some measures of gender equity improve suggests gender equality is a win-win situation, at least with regard to math performance.”

The study sends an important message to parents, educators, and girls about the myth of boys’superior math ability: it simply isn’t true. But according to Mertz, the belief that boys are naturally better mathematicians persists partly because of the ongoing gap in women’s participation in STEM careers.

“Until the past few decades, very few women became top research mathematicians because of overt gender discrimination, such as lack of admissions to top math graduate programs,” she explained.

“While overt discrimination has largely disappeared, the continuing current scarcity of female role models among top research mathematicians leads most people to believe that it must simply be due to innate gender differences in math ability rather than past discrimination and sociocultural factors that inhibited females from pursuing such careers. Myths die slowly since folks tend to ignore facts that don’t fit their preconceived notions while remembering facts that do. It is important for the lay news media to widely report the facts in our article to help dispel this long-held myth.”

Myths die slowly since folks tend to ignore facts that don’t fit their preconceived notions while remembering facts that do.

Overcoming unconscious biases will take a concerted effort on the part of the general public, Mertz asserted. This is especially important given the country’s goal of increasing overall participation and performance in STEM subjects.

“As long as the myth persists, most girls who might have the potential to excel in math and other STEM fields will continue to be discouraged from and advised against even trying,” she concluded. “One can’t possibly succeed in something one doesn’t even attempt to do. U.S. children of both genders need to get the message that they can succeed in math and other STEM fields by putting in effort, rather than assuming if they are not readily excelling that it must be because they lack innate ability.”

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