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Gender Differences in Mathematics Achievement Around the World

Gender Differences in Mathematics Achievement Around the World

Differences between cultures in mathematics performance are much greater than the sex differences in performance. If one looks at the recent averages of boys’ and girls’ scores over several dozen countries, boys performed slightly better than girls (Else-Quest et al., 2010; Guiso et al., 2008). Results for individual countries, however, tell a different tale. Girls performed as well as boys in two of the three countries with the highest eighth-grade math scores (Chinese Taipei and Korea) and did better than boys in the third country (Singapore). Moreover, girls in all three countries scored much higher than boys in many other nations, including the United States (Hines, 2010).

Another indicator of the critical role of culture in fostering math talent in girls comes from recent research on the most difficult math competitions for young people, including the USA and International Mathematical Olympiads and the Putnam Competition. What is striking is that the majority of the top-


scoring U.S. girls are immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where mathematics education is a priority for all children (Hyde & Mertz, 2009). Similarly, of the dozen top-ranked countries in the International Mathematical Olympiad, nearly all are in Eastern Europe or Asia (e.g., Bulgaria, Korea, Romania, Ukraine) and many have several prize-winning girls on their teams (Andreescu et al., 2008; Hyde & Mertz, 2009). Once again, these are countries with rigorous math curricula and cultures that encourage both girls and boys to excel in math.

A related finding is that gender differences in math performance and attitudes are smaller in countries with greater gender equality. More specifically, girls perform better in countries where females have equal access to education and where more women have careers in scientific research (Else- Quest et al., 2010). Together, these results indicate the powerful role of culture in the social construction of mathematics achievement.

Let us now examine more closely some of the factors associated with women’s math performance.

FACTORS ASSOCIATED WITH MATH PERFORMANCE. The single best predictor of scores on mathematics achievement tests is the number of mathematics courses an individual has taken. High school girls are now as likely as boys to take advanced mathematics and advanced biology and chemistry courses (National Science Foundation, 2008; Snyder & Dillow, 2010).

In college, however, some women avoid choosing math and science courses and careers even when they are gifted in mathematics (Ceci & Williams, 2010; Watt, 2008). This is troubling, because mathematics is a critical factor in career development, paving the way to high-status and high-salary careers in the sciences, medicine, engineering, and business (AAUW, 2010). Why, then, do many young women begin to avoid math and science in college?

One important clue is found in the attitudes and feelings that females and males develop toward mathematics. Mathematics self-efficacy, one’s beliefs concerning one’s ability to successfully perform mathematical tasks, is related to actual math performance (Betz, 2008; Williams & Williams, 2010). Researchers have found that males around the world have greater mathematics self-efficacy than females (Else-Quest et al., 2010; Martin et al., 2009; Nagy et al., 2010; Penner, 2008). Compared to males, females are more anxious about math and have less confidence in their ability to learn it, despite their equal or superior performance on tests and in the classroom. This self-perception emerges as early as elementary school, when girls begin to view math and science as part of the male domain, and it continues into adolescence (Cvencek et al., 2011; Galambos et al., 2009; Kurtz-


Costes et al., 2008; Lindberg et al., 2008). The more that girls endorse this stereotype, and the lower their self-confidence in math, the poorer their math performance (Beilock et al., 2010; Ceci & Williams, 2010; Steffens & Jelenec, 2011), and the less interest they have in continuing math studies (Denissen et al., 2007; Kiefer & Sekaquaptewa, 2007). Adolescent girls are also less likely than adolescent boys to view mathematics and science as interesting and useful for their future careers (Frenzel et al., 2010). Keep in mind, however, that many girls and women have positive views about math. For a more detailed look at factors that are associated with women’s perspectives on math, see Learn About the Research 5.1.

LEARN ABOUT THE RESEARCH 5.1 Factors Linked to Women’s Perspectives on Math

Women’s experiences with math and their attitudes toward it differ greatly. Debra Oswald and Richard Harvey (2003) set out to identify college women’s differing perspectives on and experiences regarding math. They used a technique called the Q-method, which is considered a useful tool for feminist research (Kitzinger, 1999). In the first phase of the Q-method, women are interviewed about their thoughts, experiences, and attitudes regarding a topic, in this case, math. Researchers then select a large number of statements, called Q- sort items, and ask a new group of women to sort the items on a scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Finally, participants with shared viewpoints are grouped together. Oswald and Harvey identified three groups of college women who differed in their experiences, attitudes, and awareness of stereotypes about math. Over half the women, labeled the “successfully encouraged” group, had high self-perceived math ability, found math to be personally relevant, and had positive attitudes toward it. They had been encouraged by parents and teachers and were relatively unaware of negative stereotypes. About 20 percent of women were in the “mathematically aversive” group. They did not like math, had negative perceptions of their ability, and were somewhat aware of negative stereotypes about women and math. Although not directly discouraged in math, neither were they encouraged to pursue it. Nearly 20 percent of women belong to the “stereotypically discouraged” group, consisting of women who were very aware of negative gender stereotypes regarding math, lacked parental and teacher support, and had negative experiences in math. These women were fairly neutral in their attitudes toward math and in their own math abilities.

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