Current Research on Gender Differences in Math
Colleen Ganley and Sarah Lubienski, posted May 9, 2016 —
Are there still gender differences in
math? It actually depends on which math outcomes we look at. At both elementary
and secondary levels, boys and girls score similarly on many state tests, and
girls get relatively good grades in math classes. However, some gender differences
in math attitudes and skills appear during elementary school, and ultimately, boys
are much more likely than girls to pursue careers in some key math-intensive
fields, such as engineering and computer science. In recent years, concerns
about boys and reading have taken some attention away from girls and math, as
girls have higher reading achievement than boys in early elementary school.
However, it is important to consider that research shows
that reading gender gaps narrow during the elementary grades, whereas gender
gaps in math grow during early elementary school.
In a series of two posts, we will
highlight some of the most important recent research about gender and math and discuss
the types of changes that we might be able to make to increase girls’ math
attitudes, performance, and later participation in math-intensive careers.
BIG ARE THE GENDER DIFFERENCES IN MATH?
In general, gender differences in math performance are small, which is important to
keep in mind. Gender differences on math tests tend to be more pronounced when
the content of the assessment is less related to the material that is taught in
school (for example, on the SAT-Math as opposed to a math test in school). In
addition, researchers consistently find that gender gaps are larger among
higher-performing students, which may partially explain why we see gender gaps
in math-related careers, as these are often pursued by the highest-performing
In noting that the
gender differences in math are generally small, it is helpful to think about
this in terms of effect sizes, which researchers use to measure the size of a
difference between groups. For gender
differences in math-related variables, effect sizes (Cohen’s d) are generally in the .1 to .3 range.
To give you an idea of what this looks like, this
demonstrates how much overlap there is between two groups who have an effect
size of .2 for the difference between them. As you can see, an enormous amount
of overlap shows how similar girls and boys are in terms of performance on
DOES MATH HAVE GENDER DIFFERENCES?
A number of different potential
explanations exist for why these small gender differences persist and why
larger gaps exist in math-related career choices. Below we summarize the
research on some of the factors that have been found to contribute to gender
differences in mathematics and math-related career choices.
shows that, even from a fairly young age, girls are less confident and more anxious about math than boys.
Moreover, these differences in confidence and anxiety are larger than actual gender
differences in math achievement. These attitudes are important predictors of
math performance and math-related career choices. Men and women also tend to prioritize
when selecting a profession. For
example, women tend to care more about working with people, and men tend to be more
interested in working with things, and research shows that this difference
relates to gender gaps in selection of math-related careers.
researchers have found that boys tend to use more novel problem-solving
strategies, whereas girls are more likely to follow school-taught procedures.
In general, girls more often follow teacher-given rules in the classroom, and it
could be that this “good girl” tendency inhibits their math explorations and
development of bold problem-solving skills. Such differences may contribute to
gender gaps in mathematics as content becomes more complex and problem-solving
situations call for more than learned
Boys tend to be stronger in the ability to mentally represent and
manipulate objects in space, and these skills predict
better math performance and STEM career choices. Fortunately, some researchers have
found that spatial skills can be improved through training, and one
study even found that the gender gap in spatial skills was
eliminated with training.
TEACHERS’ MATH ANXIETY AND STEREOTYPES
Recently, researchers found
that girls’ math achievement is lower if they have a female teacher who is anxious
about math. This may be because these girls are picking up on gender
stereotypes. In addition, some of our own research suggests that when boys and
girls have the same math performance and behaviors in math class, teachers
perceive that the boys are better at math, and that this “differential rating”
of boys and girls contributes to gender gaps in math performance. This is not
to suggest that teachers are to blame for gender differences in math
performance. Teachers’ views simply reflect those of society as a whole. Research
has been mixed about whether today's children hold gender stereotypes about
math. Children often report being aware of gender stereotypes about
mathematics, but they less often indicate that they believe those stereotypes.
In sum, this research points to a few important areas of work that
inform our thinking about gender differences in math and math-related career
choices. This research area still has a lot of unanswered questions, however, and
we are still trying to understand the best things to do in the classroom to
help close gender gaps. In our next post, we will address some of the recommendations
that can be made on the basis of the current research.
are your thoughts on gender differences in mathematics? What have you noticed
in your classroom related to gender and mathematics? What have you done to help
stereotyping in your mathematics classroom? We want to hear from you! Post your
comments below or share your thoughts on Twitter @TCM_at_NCTM using #TCMtalk.
Note: This blog post is based on the
upcoming chapter “Research on Gender and Mathematics,” which will appear in the
First Compendium for Research in Mathematics Education (edited by Jinfa Cai, published by NCTM).
Colleen Ganley is an assistant
professor of Developmental Psychology at the Florida Center for Research in
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (FCR-STEM) at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Dr. Ganley’s research interests involve
understanding the social, cognitive, and affective factors related to math
learning and achievement with a specific interest in individual differences
related to gender and income level. Sarah
Lubienski is a professor of mathematics education in the Department of
Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Lubienski’s research focuses on mathematics
achievement, instruction, equity and reform. She has used both quantitative and
qualitative methods to study students, parents, and teachers in districts
undertaking mathematics reform.
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