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Gender math gap erasable, studies suggest

May 30, 2008
World Science staff

It’s been a long, some­times vi­cious con­tro­ver­sy: are boys bet­ter at math than girls? Some say they are, be­cause boys tend to out­score girls in math. Op­po­nents blame that on sex­ist up­bring­ing.

Girls are as good at math as boys giv­en the prop­er en­vi­ron­ment, a stu­dy has found. (Im­age cour­te­sy U.S. Nat'l Wo­m­en's Health In­for­m­a­tion Cen­ter)


New stud­ies may be shed­ding light on the is­sue. In a nut­shell, some of the lat­est re­search points to three con­clu­sions that of­fer some­thing to sat­is­fy both sides—but over­all paint a bright pic­ture for those eager to see more wom­en en­ter math­e­mat­ics and sci­ences. The key find­ings:
  • Girls are as good at math as boys giv­en the prop­er en­vi­ron­ment.

  • Males may have an edge in spa­tial think­ing abil­i­ties, which are use­ful in math—and this ad­van­tage may be very an­cient, ev­o­lu­tion­ar­ily speak­ing.

  • Deep-root­ed though this dif­fer­ence may be, fe­males can sur­mount it with just a lit­tle work.

“The so-called gen­der gap in math skills seems to be at least par­tially cor­re­lat­ed to en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors,” said Pao­la Sa­pien­za of The Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment at North­west­ern Uni­ver­s­ity in Il­li­nois. 

“The gap does­n’t ex­ist in coun­tries in which men and wom­en have ac­cess to si­m­i­lar re­sources and op­por­tun­i­ties,” added Sa­pien­za, summa­rizing the re­sults of a new study pub­lished in the May 30 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.

In it, Sapienza and col­leagues an­a­lyzed da­ta from more than 276,000 chil­dren in 40 coun­tries who took an in­terna­t­ionally stand­ard­ized test of math, read­ing, sci­ence and pro­blem-solving. The data came from the 2003 Or­ga­nisa­t­ion for Eco­nom­ic Co-opera­t­ion and De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme for In­terna­t­ional Stu­dent As­sess­ment.

The re­search­ers found that glob­ally, boys out­per­formed girls in math by 10.5 points on av­er­age on this test. But this ad­van­tage van­ished in some of the most pro­gres­sive and gen­der-e­qual coun­tries such as Ice­land, Swe­den and Nor­way.

Now that the ap­par­ent good news is out, does this mean any­one who dared sug­gest the ex­ist­ence of nat­u­ral gen­der dif­fer­ences in math was be­ing sex­ist?

Not necessa­rily, if one be­lieves oth­er stud­ies sug­gesting sex­ism is­n’t the only rea­son for the math gap. Some re­search has at­trib­ut­ed that gap to a deeper dis­crep­an­cy in spa­tial rea­soning abil­i­ties. One new study even sug­gests an ev­o­lu­tion­ary rea­son: bet­ter spa­tial rea­soning in males might be re­lat­ed to larg­er range size in their an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment. 

This dis­crep­an­cy may ex­tend all the way down the ev­o­lu­tion­ary tree to in­ver­te­brates, ac­cord­ing to the re­search, which fo­cused on cut­tle­fish and ap­pears in the May 27 on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Roy­al So­ci­e­ty B.

“Ev­i­dence of sex dif­fer­ences in spa­tial cog­ni­tion have been re­ported in a wide range of ver­te­brate species,” but nev­er the sim­pler in­vet­e­brates, the au­thors wrote. The in­ves­ti­ga­tors found that male cut­tle­fish both range over a larg­er ar­ea, and have bet­ter ori­ent­ing abil­i­ties than female cut­tle­fish. “The da­ta con­form to the pre­dic­tions of the range size hy­poth­e­sis,” they wrote.

Nev­er­the­less, dif­fer­ences in spa­tial cog­ni­tion are easily sur­mount­a­ble, if one be­lieves yet a third stu­dy, which might help ex­plain why ul­ti­mately girls and boys can per­form equally in math. Pub­lished in last Oc­to­ber’s is­sue of the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, this study found that ma­le-female dif­fer­ences in some tasks re­quir­ing spa­tial skills are largely elim­i­nat­ed af­ter both groups play a vi­deo game for 10 hours.

“On av­er­age, wom­en are not quite as good at rap­idly switch­ing at­ten­tion among dif­fer­ent ob­jects and this may be one rea­son why wom­en do not do as well on spa­tial tasks,” said the lead au­thor, Uni­ver­s­ity of To­ron­to psy­chol­o­gy doc­tor­al stu­dent Jing Feng. But “both men and wom­en can im­prove their spa­tial skills by play­ing a vi­deo game,” he added, and “the wom­en catch up to the men… Moreo­ver, the im­proved per­formance of both sexes was main­tained when we as­sessed them again af­ter five months.”

The game used was a first-person shoot-em-up game, “Medal of Hon­or: Pa­cif­ic As­sault.”

The game “may cause the ex­pres­sion of pre­vi­ously in­ac­tive genes which con­trol the de­vel­op­ment of neu­ral [brain] con­nec­tions that are nec­es­sary for spa­tial at­ten­tion,” said Ian Spence, di­rec­tor of the uni­ver­s­ity’s en­gi­neer­ing psy­chol­o­gy lab­o­r­a­to­ry. “Clearly, some­thing dra­mat­ic is hap­pen­ing in the brain” thanks to the play­ing.

“One im­por­tant ap­plica­t­ion of this re­search could be in help­ing to at­tract more wom­en to the math­e­mat­i­cal sci­ences and en­gi­neer­ing,” he added. “S­ince spa­tial skills play an im­por­tant role in these pro­fes­sions, bring­ing the spa­tial skills of young wom­en up to the lev­el of their male coun­ter­parts could help to change the gen­der bal­ance in these fields that are so im­por­tant to our eco­nom­ic health.”


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Are boys better at math than girls? It’s been a long, bitter controversy. Some say they are, because boys tend to outscore girls in math. But critics blame that on sexist upbringing. New studies may be shedding light on the issue. In a nutshell, some of the latest research suggest three conclusions that offer something to satisfy both sides—but overall make for a bright picture for those wanting to see more women enter mathematics and sciences. The key findings: · Girls are as good at math as boys given the proper environment. · Males may have an advantage in spatial thinking abilities, which are useful in math—and this advantage may be very ancient, evolutionarily speaking. · Deeply rooted though this advantage may be, females can erase it with a little work. “The so-called gender gap in math skills seems to be at least partially correlated to environmental factors,” said Paola Sapienza of The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois. “The gap doesn’t exist in countries in which men and women have access to similar resources and opportunities,” added Sapienza, summarizing the results of a new study published in the May 30 issue of the research journal science. In the research, Sapienza and colleagues analyzed data from more than 276,000 children in 40 countries who took an internationally standardized test of math, reading, science and problem-solving—the 2003 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Programme for International Student Assessment. The researchers found that while the global pattern shows that boys tended to outperform girls in math by 10.5 points on average on this test. But this advantage vanished in some of the most progressive and gender-equal countries such as Iceland, Sweden and Norway. Now that the apparent good news is out, should enthusiastic women’s rights proponents seize on it to excoriate as sexist anyone who dared suggest natural gender differences in math exist? Not necessarily, if one believes other studies suggesting sexism isn’t the only reason for the math gap. Some research has attributed that gap to a deeper discrepancy in spatial reasoning abilities. One new study even suggests an evolutionary reason: better spatial reasoning in males might be related to larger range size in their ancestral environment. This discrepancy may even extend all the way down the evolutionary tree to invertebrates, according to the research, which focused on cuttlefish and appears in the May 27 issue of the research journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. “Evidence of sex differences in spatial cognition have been reported in a wide range of vertebrate species,” but never the simpler inveterbrates, the authors wrote. The investigators found that male cuttlefish both range over a larger area, and have better orienting abilities than female cuttlefish. “The data conform to the predictions of the range size hypothesis,” they wrote. Nevertheless, differences in spatial cognition are easily surmountable, if one believes yet a third study, which might help explain why ultimately girls and boys can perform equally well in math. Published in last October’s issue of the journal Psychological Science, this study found that male-female differences in some tasks requiring spatial skills are largely eliminated after both groups play a video game for 10 hours. “On average, women are not quite as good at rapidly switching attention among different objects and this may be one reason why women do not do as well on spatial tasks,” said the lead author, University of Toronto psychology doctoral student Jing Feng. But “both men and women can improve their spatial skills by playing a video game and that the women catch up to the men… Moreover, the improved performance of both sexes was maintained when we assessed them again after five months.” The game used was a first-person shoot-em-up game, “Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault.” The game “may cause the expression of previously inactive genes which control the development of neural [brain] connections that are necessary for spatial attention,” said Ian Spence, director of the university’s engineering psychology laboratory. “Clearly, something dramatic is happening in the brain” thanks to the playing. “One important application of this research could be in helping to attract more women to the mathematical sciences and engineering,” he added. “Since spatial skills play an important role in these professions, bringing the spatial skills of young women up to the level of their male counterparts could help to change the gender balance in these fields that are so important to our economic health.”