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The Math Myth: Boys Are Not Better at Math Than Girls

In our culture, there is a prevailing notion that boys are somehow inherently better at math than girls are. This dangerous assumption is at the core of the gender imbalance that exists in fields of study and work involving math, such as engineering. When most people, including educators, have a subconscious idea that math is for boys, they will unintentionally direct boys toward more intense study and interest in the subject and steer girls away from it.

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A recent study by researchers Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Melissa Humphries of the University of Texas at Austin, published in the journal Gender & Society, found that math teachers favor white male students above others. The study, which looked at a group of 15,000 high school students, included surveys the teachers had taken that rated their students’ abilities. The results showed that the teachers perceived their white male students to be better performers in math than their assessments actually showed; on the flip side, the teachers perceived their white female students to be have performed worse then they actually did. This demonstrated a bias toward the white male students and a bias against the white female students.


Over time this notion displays itself in the overwhelming majority of males holding positions in STEM fields compared to females. Alarmingly, a recent research report in the journal Child Development showed that children as young as six years old already hold the stereotype that math is for boys.


The truth is there is no truth to the notion that males are any better at math than their female counterparts. In fact, recent research has proven that there is no difference at all based on gender. The study, conducted by math and computer science professor Jonathan Kane and oncology professor Janet Mertz, analyzed standardized test scores of hundreds of thousands of 4th- to 8th-grade students in 86 countries. They found no significant difference between the performances of girls versus boys. They did uncover, however, that scores varied widely from country to country, which suggests that there are some cultural factors at play when it comes to performance in math.


The real problem is not an inherent difference in ability but in our fully ingrained societal belief that girls have a harder time with math than do boys. When we address that issue, we will come much closer to narrowing the gender gap in the world of academics and the workforce in STEM fields.


Karen Purcell

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