05 June 2009

Girls and maths: blame the culture

Culture, not biology, might explain why females in some parts of the world don't perform as well as males in maths.

Culture, not biology, might explain why females in some parts of the world don't perform as well as males in maths.

That's the conclusion of an analysis of mathematics performance in the United States and abroad that appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"There are countries where the gender disparity in maths performance doesn't exist at either the average or gifted level. These tend to be the same countries that have the greatest gender equality," article co-author Janet Mertz, an oncology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a university news release.

Socio-cultural factors
The analysis, which looked at standardised test scores and related sources, detected a pattern in achievement based on socio-cultural factors that either discourage or encourage females at all grade levels to excel at maths.

"If you provide females with more educational opportunities and more job opportunities in fields that require advanced knowledge of maths, you're going to find more women learning and performing very well in mathematics," Mertz said.

For example, girls at all grade levels in the United States have very similar scores to boys on required standardised maths exams. Girls and young women are increasingly taking advanced maths classes and seeking college and post-graduate degrees in maths, following a climbing arc from the country's more sexist days in the mid-20th century to the more progressive present day.

The researchers' look at maths scores and abilities across cultures, ethnicity and countries found that girls do as well as boys in several demographics, with the ratio of girls to boys excelling in maths being closely linked to gender equity within the demographic group.

"US culture instills in students the belief that maths talent is innate; if one is not naturally good at maths, there is little one can do to become good at it," Mertz said. "In some other countries, people value mathematics more highly and view maths performance as being largely related to effort." - (HealthDay News, June 2009)

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