The education gender gap

Yet another study on why the sexes score differently in academic disciplines -- but this one comes with some surprising findings.

By Kate Harding
May 31, 2008 1:20AM (UTC)
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It seems like we cover a new study showing girls aren't really worse than boys at [insert male-dominated discipline here] about every other day, and often enough, the discipline in question is math or science. So I almost zoomed right past this article, "Boys Not Better at Math Than Girls, Study Finds," in my morning reading, assuming it would be snoozeworthy. Good thing I didn't, because this study of the educational gender gap, led by professor Paola Sapienza of Northwestern University, actually says something interesting and (to me, anyway) new.

Globally, girls average 10.5 points lower than boys on math tests -- but the picture gets more complicated when you look at things locally. In Sweden, about the closest thing we've got to a "gender-equal society," the difference between boys' and girls' scores is negligible. In Turkey, not such a gender-equal society, the average difference is 23 points. This study, which examined the test scores of 276,000 children in 40 countries, found that this pattern held around the world. "Average girls' scores improved as equality improved and the number of girls reaching the highest levels of performance also increased." In other words, it turns out more equality leads to ... more equality. Go figure.


When it comes to reading, though, girls start to get more equal than others. "The research also found a striking gender gap in reading skills. In every country girls perform better than boys in reading but in countries that treat both sexes equally, girls do even better." The global average difference is 32.7 points. In Iceland, another country noteworthy for its gender equality, girls' average scores were 61 points higher than boys. Sixty-one points!

The article doesn't say how old the children in question were, so it could be a case of girls developing verbal skills faster than boys; perhaps the difference more or less evens out later in life. But I'm still not sure how I feel about the fact that the headline here is about girls and math, in light of those stunning numbers. Naturally, part of me thinks, "You see? Girls will not only keep up but excel if you treat them equally!" But another part of me thinks that if societal gender equality leads to boys being that far behind at something as important as reading, at some point, it ceases to be equality. (Contrary to feminist caricatures, most of us aren't actually looking for total world domination.)

I'm really not sure how you fix that problem -- I only know that treating girls like crap to keep things even is not an option, no matter how well it has worked in the past. I'm still pretty psyched about those math scores, thank you very much.

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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