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Closing the Gender Gap in Mathematics

An analysis of contemporary data has provided new evidence discrediting the notion that females are innately less capable than males at doing mathematics, especially at the highest level.

Researchers Janet E. Mertz and Janet S. Hyde of the University of Wisconsin-Madison report that girls in the United States can match boys in mathematical performance and ability. Moreover, U.S. girls have caught up to their peers abroad.

Mertz and Hyde presented their findings in a perspective titled "Gender, Culture, and Mathematics," published in the June 2 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the U.S., girls at all grade levels are on a par with boys on standardized mathematics tests; they now take calculus in high school at the same rate as boys; and the percentage of U.S. doctorates in the mathematical sciences awarded to women has climbed to 30 percent—up from five percent 50 years ago.

"On average, girls have reached parity with boys in the United States and some other countries, and the gender gap at the high end is closing," Hyde said.

"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 noted.

In their article, Mertz and Hyde argue that the gender gap "is largely an artifact of changeable sociocultural factors, not immutable, innate biological differences between the sexes."

"Mounting evidence," they noted, shows "that both the magnitude of mean math gender differences and the frequency of identification of gifted and profoundly gifted females significantly correlate with sociocultural factors, including measures of gender equality across nations."

At the same time, Hyde and Mertz warn that reliance on the sorts of tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, which rarely require complex problem-solving, could hinder math performance in the U.S. "This neglect of problem-solving skills could place U.S. students at a disadvantage compared with their peers in countries where teaching and tests emphasize more challenging content," they wrote.

The PNAS article by Mertz and Hyde followed up on a paper, titled "Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving," published in the November 2008 Notices of the American Mathematical Society. See "U.S. Culture Discourages Girls from Excelling at Math."

Sources: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 2, 2009; University of Wisconsin-Madison, June 1, 2009.

News Date: 
Tuesday, June 2, 2009