Math Competitions: Boy Vs Girl
February 26, 2013

Rematch! Girls Can Perform As Good As Boys At Math Competitions

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

There has been a persistent idea that boys are better at math and in competitions than girls, and it has been around for a long time. A new study, led by Brigham Young University, reveals exactly why this idea has persisted: no one scheduled a rematch.

The majority of math contests are one-shot events. Girls underperform relative to male classmates at these contests. The research team set up a rematch to test the validity of the idea that boys are better at math and contests than girls.

Twenty-four local elementary schools participated, revamping their contest format to go across five rounds rather than just one. The study results show once the first round was over, girls performed as well or better than boys for the following four rounds.

“It´s really encouraging that seemingly large gaps disappear just by keeping them in the game longer,” said BYU economics professor Joe Price.

Price, along with Christopher Cotton from the University of Miami and Frank McIntyre of Rutgers University, paired students up to see who got the most questions right during a 5-minute quiz. If the students happened to tie on the number of correct answers, the student who finished first won, with the winner earning raffle tickets for a small prize.

The participating schools shared past results with the research team, allowing them to compare how similarly talented boys and girls performed. The students seem equally matched on paper, but for some inexplicable reason boys have an edge on the first foray into a competitive setting. This amounts to a one-point advantage for the boys on a test worth ten points.

“We don´t know if it´s boys getting excited and over-performing or if it´s girls being too uncomfortable with the situation,” Price said.

To add another twist, six of the participating classrooms de-emphasized the speed component of the tests, eliminating the tie-breaking time element. Although students were still only allowed five minutes, they were told, "It's not a race."

Girls competed evenly with boys when the test format was tweaked in just those two small ways. Not everyone is surprised with the results, however.

“In mathematical settings without time pressure or competition, such as classes I have taught or classes I have taken, males and females seem to do equally well,” said BYU math professor Jessica Purcell, a recipient of the prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship. Purcell was not involved in the study.

The research team suggests because the boys' competitive edge is so short-lived, a little encouragement could go a long way for the girls.

“What motivated us was how to get girls to thrive in a competitive environment,” said Price, noting he has two daughters. “You might guess that girls would shy away from competitive work environments. What our results would hint is that if you convince them to stick around and give it a shot, they will acclimate and do just fine.”

The findings of this study were recently published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.