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Are males really better than females at math? 

We've all heard this one before. Males are better at math, while females are better at languages.

And it does seem true, doesn't it? 

A disproportionate number of mathematicians and physicists are male, and this ratio is particularly skewed at the very top. This famous photo below assembled the top minds humankind had to offer for math and science in 1927. What is striking is that there is only 1 female figure - Marie Curie.

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Moreover, there have been a large number of press reports and studies that seemed to affirm this.

In this influential study published in 1983, Benbow and Stanley looked at the SAT results of almost 40,000 students in the United States, from 1980 - 1982. These students were in grade 7 (age 12-13) - the period of transition between junior/primary to middle/secondary school (depending on which education system you're familiar with). Why is this significant? On one hand, students are just about old enough for a meaningful test like SAT. On the other hand, it minimises the effects of the environment - junior/primary schools are seen to be more equal in standards and teach simpler material, compared to middle/secondary school where differences between schools and teachers have a bigger influence on student performance. 

 

The result?

While males were slightly ahead on average, the difference is especially pronounced among the best performers. Males outnumber females 13 to 1 out of those who scored 700 points or more.

 

For a period of time, there was even a plausible explanation offered. Some research hinted that testosterone fueled the growth in parts of the frontal cortex, the brain region involved in mathematical thinking. Grade 7 is the peak of puberty; testosterone is raging in males - that one region of the brain gets bigger, hence males are better at math. 

 

Case closed, mystery solved, Sherlock Holmes gets to write another story and film another TV series.  

 

Except, no, case not closed. While the story of males being better than females at math is intuitive and convenient, is it really the correct answer or the answer we expect? With actual results show males performing better than females, we assume that the difference must be explained by gender. But could gender itself be merely a proxy, masking the actual underlying reason?  
 

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A landmark study - Culture, Gender, and Math (Luigi Guison, Paola Sapienza et al) took a closer look. Agan, they examined the scores of another standardised test - PISA - across 275,000 participants in 60 different countries.

(read the full paper here: 

 

 

They noticed something different. Take a look at the graph above:

- the vertical axis plots the difference in math scores between males and females;

- the horizontal axis plots a new variable - the level of gender equality, from lowest on the left to highest on the right).
 

The results? Again, females generally score lower than males. 

But this effect is greatly influenced by the environment: 

 

  •  In countries where there is low levels of gender equality - Turkey, Korea, Italy - females scored significantly worse than males.

  • In countries where there is greater gender equality - Norway, Sweden - there was barely any difference between males and females.

  • In Iceland, with the greatest gender equality, females performed better than males.


(Interestingly, females always scored better than males in verbals tests; they scored a little better in countries with less gender equality, and a lot better in countries with more gender equality.)

So what explains the difference in results? As it turns out, cultures with more gender inequality reinforced the stereotype of males being better than females at certain things. Parents were more encouraging and supportive of sons in math (and in education in general) because "he is probably good at it", and more lackadaisical with daughters, because they are female and "not likely to be good at math". This bias extended to schools. It was observed that in gender unequal countries, teachers were more likely to pick male students to answer questions, and encouraged male students more

So the idea of males being better than females at math is a sort self-fulfilling prophecy. Because people believed it to be true, they acted in a way to confirm these beliefs, thus eventually making it a reality. 

There are a few important takeaways from this:
 

  1. Very few outcomes occur because of just one reason. This is especially true with regards to human observations. It's very rare for one particular gene or one particular chromosome or one childhood experience shaped things to what they are. More likely, there is the interplay of several different factors, and we end up observing only the most obvious one while missing out on the others. Check out our page on what causes us to think and act the way we do. 
     

  2. Most of the time, we adopt an opinion or view that sounds plausible very quickly, based on a few heuristics. This works reasonably well most of the time for simpler issues. But for complex issues, we might come to the wrong conclusion.
     

  3.  We understand and explain the world in stories. Once formulated, our stories become very difficult to change. You can think of many stories in our lives that are not true, and yet are passed on by people from one generation to the next - that males are better than females at math, that Darwin invented evolution, that stomach ulcers are caused by spicy food or stress, that black cats are bad luck. Or more significantly, our own personal stories about ourselves which consequently shape our impressions and actions, and ultimately how we live our lives. 

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