Study: Girls in Sexist Societies Worse at Math

The larger a country's gender gap, the worse girls perform in math, study says.

ByABC News
February 12, 2009, 1:04 PM

May 29, 2008 — -- For decades, researchers and educators have debated why boys tend to perform better than girls in math. Are men naturally more logical creatures and thus better at scientific endeavors? Are girls not encouraged by their families, their friends or society at large to pursue scientific careers?

Researchers believe they may have found at least one answer: where girls live. Girls living in countries where there is more gender equality perform better in math, sometimes outpacing boys, than girls who live in countries with more male-dominated societies.

"In societies which are more gender equal, there is a lower gender gap in mathematics," said Paola Sapienza, an associate finance professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and co-author of the study published Thursday in the journal Science. Also, "there is a much higher gender gap in reading. Girls become much better in reading" in these countries.

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To conduct the study, Sapienza, along with Luigi Guiso at the Instituto Universitario Europeo and Ferdinando Monte and Luigi Zingales at the University of Chicago, examined boys' and girls' test scores worldwide on the same test, using data from the Programme for International Test Assessment. The program provided its 2003 test data from more than 276,000 students from 40 countries around the world.

According to that data, girls worldwide scored on average 10.5 points lower than boys (or 2 percent lower than boys) in math. In reading, on average, girls outscored boys by 32.7 points (or 6.6 percent higher than boys).

The United States fell in line with the worldwide average. In the United States, American girls scored 9.8 points lower than boys in math.

"These are what we called the gender gaps in math and in reading," Sapienza said.

Generally, there are two explanations for the gender gap in math, according to Sapienza: biological and environmental. The biological reasoning says that boys are naturally better in math based on research involving spatial tests.

"It's not very strong evidence because we don't have strong correlation between spatial abilities and math scores," she said.