Study shows females the equal of males in math skills

October 13, 2010
By: GSE Bulletin

A research team that includes UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education Professor Marcia Linn is again offering proof that the mathematical skills of boys and girls, as well as men and women, are substantially equal.

Marcia Linn.
Marcia Linn (GSE)

Linn and her fellow researchers examined existing studies between 1990 and 2007 that looked mainly at grade- and high-school students and published the results in the current online edition of journal Psychological Bulletin, an American Psychological Association publication. Linn has been part of three other large studies on gender differences in mathematics and/or science achievement.

One portion of the new study looked systematically at 242 articles that assessed the math skills of nearly 1.3 million people. A second portion of the new study examined the results of several large, long-term scientific studies, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In both cases, the difference between the two sexes was so close as to be meaningless according to Linn and co-authors Sara Lindberg, a post-doctoral fellow in women’s health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health; and Janet Hyde, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The idea that both genders have equal math abilities is now widely accepted among educational researchers, Linn says, but remains surprising to many teachers and parents, who may guide girls away from courses and careers in the sciences and engineering.

Scientists now know that stereotypes affect performance according to Hyde. “There is lots of evidence that what we call ‘stereotype threat’ can hold women back in math,” says Hyde. “If, before a test, you imply that the women should expect to do a little worse than the men, that hurts performance.”

The authors hope the new results will slow the trend toward single-sex schools, which are sometimes justified on the basis of differential math skills. It may also affect standardized tests, which gained clout with the passage of No Child Left Behind, and tend to emphasize lower-level math skills like multiplication, the authors say.

"We found that the tests used for high-stakes testing have too few items that require complex problem solving,” says Linn. “These tests deter teachers from emphasizing problems that are important in everyday situations such as interpreting data about health treatment alternatives."

The new findings reinforce a recent study that ranked gender dead last among nine factors, including parental education, family income and school effectiveness, in influencing the math performance of 10-year olds.

Women have made significant advances in technical fields. Half of medical-school students are female, as are 48 percent of undergraduate math majors. However progress in physics and engineering is much slower.

“Teachers, by encouraging girls in mathematics, can help reduce stereotypes that inhibit persistence in mathematics and science," says Linn, “and they can use this evidence to guide girls to take courses such as physics and computer science that build on mathematics ability.”