Madison, Wisconsin — Sorry, chaps, but a new analysis has concluded that the reason men have tended to perform better than women at math is cultural, not biological.
The opposing view has found some surprising proponents - women's innate inadequacy at math was one of the primary reasons given in 2005 by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University and now economic adviser to Barack Obama, for the extreme scarcity of tenured women math professors in top-ranked research universities in the US.
Now, however, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison report that the primary cause for the gender disparity in math performance at all levels is culture, not biology.
"It's not an innate difference," says Janet Mertz, a UW-Madison professor of oncology and one of the authors. "There are countries where the gender disparity in math performance doesn't exist at either the average or gifted level. These tend to be the same countries that have the greatest gender equality."
Using data ranging from state standardized tests used to assess student performance under the No Child Left Behind Act to the transnational Programme for International Student Assessment, the Wisconsin researchers found that, in the US, girls now perform on a par with boys, and that women now account for 30 percent of US math doctorates, up from five percent in the 1950s.
Among the mathematically gifted, there are still more boys than girls in the US, but the gap is narrowing.
The findings challenge the validity of the greater male variability hypothesis, which says that males are biologically more variable than females in math ability, thus accounting for why more males are found with very high math skills.
The researchers show that girls' math scores are as variable as boys' in some countries and among some ethnic groups in the US. In fact, the ratio of girls to boys excelling in math correlates quite well with measures of a country's gender equity.
"US culture instills in students the belief that math talent is innate; if one is not naturally good at math, there is little one can do to become good at it," Mertz adds. "In some other countries, people more highly value mathematics and view math performance as being largely related to effort."
This could explain why the median scores of girls as well as boys in some East Asian countries are higher than the top 10 percent of both boys and girls in the US on standardized transnational math tests.
The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.