Your Number's Up: Are boys better at math?

Why the male mathematical advantage may be a myth. Arithmetic Envy: Challenging the male mathematical advantage. Boys advantage in math turns out to be smaller than once thought.

By Lauren Gee, published May 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

We've come a long way since Immanuel Kant stated that "women might as well have beards rather than trouble their pretty little heads about mathematics." A new study found that girls actually score higher than boys in mathematics until age 13. Only then do boys, whose skills accelerate more rapidly, gain a slight edge.

Erin Leahey, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that at the end of high school, boys' math scores surpass those of girls by no more than 1.5 percent. The scores of more than 12,000 students, ages 4 to 18, revealed few differences in mathematical aptitude.

These data challenge evidence of the male mathematical advantage, demonstrated most prominently by the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) launched in 1972. Researchers including Julian Stanley, Ph.D., used SAT scores to establish male superiority among gifted seventh-graders and college-bound high school seniors. Male high school seniors scored higher than females on the math section of the SAT every year from 1966 to 1997.

But Stanley deems elementary school results irrelevant to the SMPY. "The higher you get on the ability scale, the greater the differences. At grade level you are not going to find big math differences," he declares. Stanley has published five subsequent studies related to the SMPY and deems Leahey "way behind."

"By using a large sample we broadened our understanding of gender differences among regular adolescents," counters Leahey, who published the findings in Social Forces. "There is a perception that even at younger ages boys are more mathematically inclined. If that is the perception, then girls have been shortchanged."