Boys and Girls Are Equally Equipped to Succeed in Math

New evidence for gender similarities on foundational math skills.

Posted Dec 19, 2018

Despite the fact that boys and girls display equal competencies in mathematics (e.g. Lindberg, Hyde & Petersen, 2010), gender gaps in math attitudes, perceptions, and interests remain prominent. Specifically, girls are more likely than boys to report negative feelings toward math (Nosek & Smyth, 2011) and to perceive math as a “male subject” (Cvencek, Meltzoff, & Greenwald, 2011; Nosek et al., 2002). These negative feelings toward math can be harmful, as they may lead to an avoidance of math-related courses and ultimately careers in quantitative fields such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). As such, it is important to create learning environments for young girls that foster positive, rather than negative, attitudes toward math early-on.

 Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

One factor that may be contributing to the gender gap in math attitudes is the stereotype that males are more likely to succeed in the subject than females. While this stereotype is largely unsupported by empirical evidence (e.g. Lindberg, Hyde & Petersen, 2010), it continues to be held by teachers and parents alike. For example, recent research has shown that, as early as first grade, teachers tend to perceive boys as having greater mathematical abilities than girls, even when they display equal levels of achievement (Cimpian et al., 2016). Further, girls of fathers who hold the stereotype that boys are better at math than girls are less inclined to express interest in the subject (Jacobs et al., 2005). Therefore, in order to foster positive feelings toward math among girls, it is important to remove this pervasive stereotype from the home and classroom.

In order to dispel harmful stereotypes, it is crucial to conduct empirical research that addresses the veracity of such claims. One rather overlooked way of assessing math-related gender stereotypes is to investigate whether gender differences exist on the basic number skills that make up the foundation upon which more complex math skills are built. Essentially, if it were, in fact, the case that boys are more likely to succeed in math than girls, then one would expect to see a male advantage on the basic numerical skills that are predictive of later math achievement. However, two recently published studies converge to suggest that this is not, in fact, the case (Hutchison, Lyons, Ansari, 2018; Kersey et al., 2018). 

 Pexels
Source: Pexels

Specifically, in a sample of 1391 students ranging in age from 6-13, Hutchison, Lyons, & Ansari (2018) observed that throughout the elementary school years, boys and girls perform similarly across a majority of basic numerical tasks (e.g. number comparison, quantity comparison, number ordering) that are known to be predictive of more complex math processing (Lyons et al., 2014). Similarly, Kersey et al. (2018) published evidence for a lack of gender differences on early number skills in a sample of 500 children ranging in age from 6 months to 8 years. The fact that Kersey et al. failed to detect evidence of gender differences at 6 months old is particularly important as this suggests not only that males and females display equal numerical competencies from birth, but that any gender differences observed later on are most likely the result of sociocultural influences rather than intrinsic differences between the sexes.

Taken together, these new research findings converge to provide evidence for gender similarities on a host of early number skills across multiple developmental stages (infancy to late childhood). Ultimately, this research suggests that boys and girls are equally equipped with foundational number skills and therefore should be equally capable of succeeding in math. Hopefully, such findings can be used to dissuade educators and parents from underestimating the capacity for young girls to succeed in math.  

References

Cvencek, D., Meltzoff, A. N., & Greenwald, A. G. (2011). Math–gender stereotypes in elementary school children. Child development, 82(3), 766-779. doi: http://10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01529.x

Cimpian, J. R., Lubienski, S. T., Timmer, J. D., Makowski, M. B., & Miller, E. K. (2016). Have Gender Gaps in Math Closed? Achievement, Teacher Perceptions, and Learning Behaviors Across Two ECLS-K Cohorts. AERA Open, 2. doi:10.1177/2332858415616358

Hutchison, J.E, Lyons, I.M, & Ansari, D. (2018). More similar than different: Gender differences in basic numeracy are the exception not the rule. Child Development. doi: 10.1111/cdev.13044

Jacobs, J. E., Davis-Kean, P., Bleeker, M., Eccles, J. S., & Malanchuk, O. (2005). I can, but I don’t want to. The impact of parents, interests, and activities on gender differences in math. In A. Gallagher & J. Kaufman (Eds.), Gender difference in mathematics, 246-263.

Kersey, A. J., Braham, E. J., Csumitta, K. D., Libertus, M. E., & Cantlon, J. F. (2018). No intrinsic gender differences in children’s earliest numerical abilities. Npj Science of Learning, 3(1). doi:10.1038/s41539-018-0028-7

Lindberg, S. M., Hyde, J. S., Petersen, J. L., & Linn, M. C. (2010). New trends in gender and mathematics performance: a meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 136, 1123. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0021276

Lyons, I. M., Price, G. R., Vaessen, A., Blomert, L., & Ansari, D. (2014). Numerical predictors of arithmetic success in grades 1–6. Developmental Science, 17(5), 714-726. doi:10.1111/desc.12152

Nosek, B. A., Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2002). Math= male, me= female, therefore math≠ me. Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(1), 44. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.83.1.44

Nosek, B. A., & Smyth, F. L. (2011). Implicit social cognitions predict sex differences in math engagement and achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 48(5), 1125-1156. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3102/000283121141068