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Girls Do Just As Well As Boys At Math

June 2, 2009

Researchers said on Monday that girls, if they are given the same opportunities and encouragement, can do just as well at math as boys “” even at the genius level, Reuters reported.

Their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contradicts previous studies showing girls can do as well as boys on average in math, but cannot excel in the way males do.

Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison wrote in their report: “We conclude that gender inequality, not lack of innate ability or ‘intrinsic aptitude’, is the primary reason fewer females than males are identified as excelling in mathematics performance in most countries, including the United States.”

The researchers performed a statistical analysis that compared various math scores and contests with the World Economic Forum’s 2007 Gender Gap Index””an annual report that ranks countries according to employment and economic opportunities, education and political opportunities and medical status.

The World Economic Forum index ranks the U.S. 31 out of 128 nations.

Mertz said they asked questions about how well females relative to males are doing at the average level, at the high-end level (95th percentile or above) and the profoundly gifted level, the one-in-a-million type level.

She said countries with greater gender equity are also the ones where the ratio of girls to boys doing well in math is close to equal and that no one disputes that at the average level, girls perform as well as boys mathematically.

However, disparities persist at the top levels and some experts have said this is due to the “greater male variability” theory, which states the idea that males in general are more likely to score both extremely high and extremely poorly on tests than girls are.

But the analysis shows this is not true, according to Mertz. “It’s not that everywhere in the world there are fewer girls than boys in the top 1 percent.”

She said if there were a biological reason for the differences, this would have to hold everywhere, but it does not.

Mertz and Hyde wrote that analysis of data from 15-year-old students participating in the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment likewise indicated that as many, if not more girls than boys scored above the 99th percentile in Iceland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.

Mertz noted several different international tests, including the International Math Olympics, show the same pattern.

“If girls don’t have equal educational opportunities or if they know if they learn the material there won’t be jobs available to them, why bother, they seek something else,” she said.

But the researchers pointed out that in the United States this is slowly changing; for example, only 14 percent of the U.S. doctoral degrees in the biological sciences went to women in 1970, whereas this figure had risen to 49 percent by 2006, they wrote.

“The percentages in mathematics and statistics were 8 percent in 1970 and 32 percent in 2006.”

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