Current Research on Gender Differences in Math

  • Current Research on Gender Differences in Math

    By 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.


    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 students.  

    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 interactive visualization 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 mathematics tests.


    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.


    Research consistently 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 different values 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. 


    Some 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 procedures.


    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.


    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.


    What 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 minimize gender 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).

    2016-05 Ganley aupic22016-05 Lubienski aupic

    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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