Science Watch

We’ve come a long way since the days when 19th century mathematician Sophie Germain’s parents confiscated her candles to keep her from studying mathematics because it was considered “unsuitable” for a woman. But the long-standing debate over gender differences in mathematics is alive and well, and continues to be a lively topic within psychology.

Most experts agree that if gender differences do exist, they are small and likely to affect specific areas of math skill at the highest end of the spectrum — and there’s no indication that women cannot succeed in mathematically demanding fields. Still, women continue to be underrepresented in math, science and engineering-related careers, and there’s evidence that girls can lose ground in math under certain circumstances.

One factor inhibiting girls is self-confidence, says University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde, PhD. “Even when girls are getting better grades, boys are more confident in math. It’s important to understand what might be sapping girls’ confidence.”

And that lack of self-assurance likely stems from culture, research suggests. After reviewing decades of research on gender differences, Cornell University psychologists Steven Ceci, PhD, and Wendy Williams, PhD, conclude that while there’s probably some genetic basis for small differences between the sexes in math and spatial ability, culture plays by far the bigger role in men and boys’ higher interest and achievement.

“If you look at the students scoring in the top one in 10,000 in mathematics in 1983, there were 13 boys for every girl,” says Ceci. “Since then, until 2007, that gap has shrunk to somewhere between 2.8 and four boys for every girl.

So if the difference were just in the genome, there would not be that improvement. Rather, shifts like that are due in large part to increases in the number of girls who take higher level math courses in high school, where girls traditionally began falling behind boys. They appear to be taking more math courses because changing cultural norms make it more acceptable.

Research by Hyde supports that idea. In a January article in Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 136, No. 1), she and her colleagues found that the more gender equity a country had — measured by school enrollment, women’s share of research jobs and women’s parliamentary representation — the smaller its math gender gap.

“When girls see opportunities for themselves in science, technology, engineering and math, they’re more likely to take higher math in high school and more likely to pursue those careers,” says Hyde.

In fact, women in the United States now earn 48 percent of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and 30 percent of the doctorates, says Hyde. “If they can’t do math, how are they doing this? They can do math just fine.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that just because girls and women can do the math, they want to. When Vanderbilt University psychologist David Lubinski, PhD, and his colleagues interviewed a group of more than 5,000 intellectually precocious girls and boys they’d followed from childhood into their mid-30s, they noticed that while men and women earned equal proportions of advanced degrees, there were gender differences in the areas people decided to study.

He found that just as many women as men started college planning to go into physical sciences and math. However, women more than men later switched to humanities and social science majors. Every one of these study participants had the ability to succeed in math-related careers, but many of them were more likely to choose law school or medicine, Lubinski says.

“The sexes are making different choices,” he says. “But when we look at how satisfied these people are with their career choices, they’re equally satisfied and equally successful.”

Ceci and Williams posit that girls are more attracted to a variety of careers because they tend to have both strong math and verbal skills. “Boys who are really good at math say, ‘This is who I am, I’m a mathematician,’” says Ceci. “Girls who are really good at math are more likely to be really good at verbal skills, too, and they ask themselves, ‘I wonder what I want to do?’”

It doesn’t help that the corporate culture of many math-centered careers speaks more to boys’ well-documented tendency to be interested in “things” than girls’ tendency to be interested in working with people, says Hyde. “Engineering portrays itself as being about things,” she says. “Maybe if engineering professors made better connections to how engineering helps people, women would be more enticed.”

Classroom influences

To explore why girls are less confident than boys in their math abilities, University of Georgia psychologist Martha Carr, PhD, studies first-graders, and has found that girls use different strategies and have different motivations to do math.

Boys, Carr says, tend to use memory to retrieve sums and are motivated by a sense of competition to get the answer fast, even if they sacrifice accuracy. Girls care less about speed than accuracy and more often rely on “manipulatives” — counting on their fingers or a counting board.

“Girls will use manipulatives even when they might be able to retrieve [the answer],” says Carr. “They need an added push that boys don’t need to start using cognitive strategies.”

That’s important because while using manipulatives is an excellent strategy when students first learn math, it slows them down as problems get more difficult. In fact, in a study that followed students from second grade through fourth grade, Carr found that becoming fluent, and therefore faster, at basic math is directly linked to math performance. The study also found that girls were less fluent than boys.

“If we make sure all children are fluent [in math facts], we will eliminate most gender differences,” she says.

But what if girls’ confidence and their interest in becoming “fluent” are influenced by math anxiety among their predominantly female elementary school teachers? A 2010 study (PNAS, Vol. 107, No. 5) by University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, PhD, suggests that this may well be the case for some girls. She and her colleagues started with these facts: More than 90 percent of elementary school teachers are women, and studies show that elementary education majors have higher levels of math anxiety than any other major. The researchers then assessed math anxiety in 17 female first- and second-grade teachers, as well as math achievement and gender stereotypes among 52 boys and 65 girls from their classes. At the start of the school year, the researchers found no link between teacher anxiety and student math achievement. But by school year’s end, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls, but not boys, agreed with the statement, “Boys are good at math and girls are good at reading.” In addition, girls who accepted this stereotype performed significantly worse on math achievement measures than girls who did not and boys overall.

Interestingly, on average, girls and boys performed the same, says Beilock. Only the girls who endorsed the stereotype showed a drop in math performance. That finding supports work Beilock and others have done on “stereotype threat,” which shows that people perform poorly when a negative stereotype is in play.

It’s also not surprising that girls picked up on their teachers’ anxiety and not boys because research shows that young children are more likely to emulate adults of the same gender.

In the end, though, it’s not just girls who need math help, emphasizes University of Missouri psychologist David Geary, PhD, an expert on mathematical development and author of “Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences, Second Edition” (APA, 2009). He believes all the focus on gender distracts from the more serious problem that U.S. math achievement is abysmal compared with that of other countries.

Hyde agrees. “We need to look toward better math instruction for the United States, not specifically for boys or girls.”


Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.

Further reading

  • Ceci, S. & Williams, W. (2010) “The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls.” Oxford University Press.

  • Else-Quest, N., Hyde, J.S., Linn, M. (2010) Cross-National Patterns of Gender Differences in Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(1) 103.

  • Ceci, S., Williams, W., & Barnett, S. (2009) Women’s Underrepresentation in Science: Sociocultural and Biological Considerations. Psychological Bulletin, 135(2) 218.

  • Halpern, et al. (2007) The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 8(1) 1.