Maybe the infamous Barbie doll who announced that "math is hard" was on to something -- that is, if she had continued on to say "when you live in a sexist society." A new study shows that differences between boys' and girls' math performance has more to do with gender inequality than hard-wired ability. (Here's a freebie for all the young'uns in the audience: "But, ma, it's society's fault that I failed my math test!") Not only that, but it pokes a hole in Lawrence Summers hypothesis that men innately show more variability in mathematical ability.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison compared global studies of math ability with countries' rankings in the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index, which is calculated based on differences in education, financial clout, health and political power. Well, color me unsurprised: Countries with greater gender inequality showed a larger gap in mathematical performance, and vice versa. Iran, for example, had a poor gender equality ranking and a low percentage of high-scoring girls in the International Mathematical Olympiad. The opposite was true for the United States, where girls on average perform just as well as boys and sexual parity ranks relatively high.
I gave lead researcher Janet Hyde a ring to chat about why this was true -- could the cause be narrowed down to access to math education, for example -- and she suggested that there "are lots of sociocultural factors at work." Hyde, a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor, said: "It may have to do with the percentage of women in the labor force, inside technology and computers, teaching math and science at the college level" -- the list goes on and on. The short of it: The math gap can't be explained away purely by inherent biological ability.
So, what about Summers' controversial suggestion -- are there more hard-wired male math geniuses? The study shows that in some countries and ethnic groups girls' and boys' math ability is equally variable. That's not to mention that the gender gap in the higher percentiles has been shrinking dramatically in the U.S. As the study puts it: "It is largely an artifact of changeable sociocultural factors, not immutable, innate biological differences between the sexes."
This reminds me of a conversation I recently had with a kick-ass doctoral candidate at Stanford who's working on a cutting-edge HIV treatment. I had the embarrassing misfortune of sitting next to her on a panel of fellow alumnae who were deemed to be "doing interesting things." (Now that's a tough act to follow: Oh, you're trying to save several million people's lives? Well, I ... blog.) She felt lucky that her confidence in math and science was never crushed -- by teachers or a nasty classroom environment -- and said something along the lines of: Once girls lose that confidence, it's over for them.