The Math Gap

Here I am teaching about the “math gap” in my gender and politics class this week (under the broader heading of Education Policy), and Jon Chait helps me out by pointing out the latest research on the matter.  First, the gap… men outperform women on math throughout the world, but, the more gender equal a society, the smaller the gap, until it basically disappears in Scandinavian countries.

Figure 1: Gender gaps in math and reading versus women emancipation, 2008

What Larry Summers got in trouble for several years ago was not suggesting that men are better than women at math, but at the very extremes of math ability, e.g., 99.9 percentile, men may have a natural advantage.   Here’s the summary from the Times’ John Tierney:

The Duke researchers — Jonathan Wai, Megan Cacchio, Martha Putallaz and Matthew C. Makel — focused on the extreme right tail of the distribution curve: people ranking in the top 0.01 percent of the general population, which for a seventh grader means scoring above 700 on the SAT math test. In the early 1980s, there were 13 boys for every girl in that group, but by 1991 the gender gap had narrowed to four to one, presumably because of sociocultural factors like encouragement and instruction in math offered to girls.

Since then, however, the math gender gap hasn’t narrowed, despite the continuing programs to encourage girls. The Duke researchers report that there are still four boys for every girl at the extreme right tail of the scores for the SAT math test. The boy-girl ratio has also remained fairly constant, at about three to one, at the right tail of the ACT tests of both math and science reasoning. Among the 19 students who got a perfect score on the ACT science test in the past two decades, 18 were boys.

Meanwhile, the seventh-grade girls outnumbered the boys at the right tail of tests measuring verbal reasoning and writing ability. The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.”

Here’s Chait’s smart take on this:

There’s nothing like having a daughter to make you understand the ways that culture can effect a person’s development from a very young age. But I think the point is that, from the perspective of how a university should treat the problem, it fundamentally doesn’t matter. From a societal perspective, it’s crucial to identify sexism and differential socialization that may contribute to the disparity in male-female math performance at high levels. But Summers was addressing how universities should treat the problem, and it’s clear that by the time you’re dealing with university-level students, a significant gender disparity is already baked in the cake.

I remain very interested in the nature vs nurture aspect of this, and like Chait, I definitely chafe at the idea that we shouldn’t even discuss if biology is at stake.  Is it really a big deal that should affect our national policy or conception of gender roles in any way if at the amazing 99.9% extreme of math ability men are better than women?  Not that I’m all convinced that it is.  Just because the ratio has stopped changing doesn’t mean that there’s still not real sociological differences.  Perhaps, we’ve already gotten all the “low hanging fruit” and the remaining disparities in elite mathematics are harder to conquer.  Over a 20-30 year period, women rapidly moved from about 6% of state legislators to about 24%, with very little improvement over the last decades or so.  Does this suggest that women have now maxed out their ability as legislators and men are just better?  Either way, it’s certainly worth investigating further and considering all the possibilities.  Until then, raise your daughters to be mathematicians :-).


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to The Math Gap

  1. saideman says:

    Dude, you are so biased on this. What about the reading gap? Huh? Gets more extreme in Scandinavia. So, what does that mean? In the US, they all read less? Woohoo!?

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