University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers have now said in a study report that the primary cause for the gender disparity in math performance at all levels is culture, not biology.
But women have always been considered to be innately less capable than men at dealing with mathematical problems.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the article analyzes and summarizes recent data on math performance at all levels in the United States and internationally.
"It's not an innate difference in math ability between males and females. There are countries where the gender disparity in math performance doesn't exist at either the average or gifted level. These tend to be the same countries that have the greatest gender equality," says Janet Mertz, a UW-Madison professor of Oncology and one of the authors of the article.
In their report, Mertz and UW-Madison professor of psychology Janet Hyde set out to answer three key questions: Do gender differences in math performance exist in the general population? Do gender differences exist among the mathematically talented? Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent?
The researchers said that the answers were in the negative for the first two questions, and in the positive for the third one.
The team used disparate but complimentary sources of data-ranging from state standardized tests used to assess student performance under the No Child Left Behind Act to the transnational Programme for International Student Assessment to the elite International Mathematical Olympiad-and documented a pattern of performance that strongly suggested that the root of gender disparity in math could be pegged to changeable socio-cultural factors.
According to them, such factors either discourage or encourage girls and young women in the pursuit of the skills required to master the mathematical sciences.
The researchers say that U.S. girls these days perform on a par with boys on the standardized mathematics tests required of all students; that they are now taking calculus in high school at the same rate as boys; and that the percentage of doctorates in the mathematical sciences awarded to women has climbed to 30 percent in the 21st century, up from a nadir of 5 percent in the 1950s.
Even though there are still more boys being identified among the mathematically gifted than girls, the researchers say that the gap is narrowing and will likely continue to close as broader issues of gender inequity are addressed in American society.
"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," says Hyde.
The researchers also say that the ratio of girls to boys excelling in math correlates quite well with measures of a country's gender equity.
"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," says Mertz.
"U.S. culture instills in students the belief that math talent is innate; if one is not naturally good at math, there is little one can do to become good at it. In some other countries, people more highly value mathematics and view math performance as being largely related to effort," Mertz adds.
The researchers further point out that children of immigrants from these countries, girls as well as boys, tend to excel in math even while being raised and educated in the U.S.
They note that the future of the U.S. economy depends upon American society doing a better job of identifying and nurturing mathematically talented youth, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity.