The Gender Divide Doesn’t Add Up
In a 2011 article, Do the Math! Sex Divide Is Cultural, Not Biological, published by LiveScience, author Jennifer Welsh uses research on the gender gap in math to negate the claim that men are inherently better at math than women. While studies do show that boys statistically have higher levels of participation in math activities and better performances on math tests, research in different countries has shown that these levels of disparity are varied, and in countries with more social gender equality, the math disparities are much less (sometimes even nonexistent). In this article Welsh cites different hypotheses used to explain the gender gap in math, and comes to the conclusion that it is gender equality that holds the key to creating equity in math performance.
The first hypothesis that Welsh addresses is one proposed by Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard, which states that men are overrepresented in mathematical fields because they have more natural variability in their math abilities. He asserted that women are, in general, more likely to be “average” at math, as opposed to very good or very bad, while the trend seen in men is supposedly the opposite. Though this holds up in some countries, other countries, like Tunisia, have shown that girls/women actually have more variability in their math abilities.
Welsh also examined the idea that a system of single-sex education might be the key to eliminating the gender gap in math. Looking to the Middle East to test these claims, it was found that while girls had scored poorly on their math tests, the boys had done even worse. While these results definitely combat the claim that men are naturally better at math than women, they were found to have little to do with single-sex schooling, and more to do with the type of education being provided at these establishments.
It appears that researchers have found a very strong link between math achievement (in both genders) and the level of gender equality in society. In countries where there is less of a gender related income gap, and more equity in health, education, and the political realm, the math gender gap was smaller, and the students in general performed better in math-related activities. Welsh proposes that based on recommendations from researchers, the math gender gap could be improved simply by social actions. She suggests increasing the number of math-certified teachers in schools, decreasing the poverty level, and focusing on closing the greater gender-equality gap.