A study from the University of Wisconsin made headlines recently all across the country when its authors used data from global surveys to show that women are not intrinsically inferior to men when it comes to math. I couldn’t understand the hoopla. I thought we had moved on well past the days when anyone thought there were biological differences involved in any gap between men and women in mathematics.
But apparently I was wrong and some people still need to be informed of this fact.
To yet again make this point, Janet Mertz and Jonathan Kane took data from a global test meant to measure the proficiency of mathematics in the students taking it. The 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study tested 183,000 4th graders from 38 countries and 256,000 8th graders from 52 countries. Adding to the pool of statistics was the 2009 Programme in International Student Assessment, which included moer than 475,000 students from 65 countries.
While the data did show a difference in performance between males and females, the authors were quick to discover why.
In addition to all of that number crunching, they also looked into the amount of gender equality in each of the participating nations. They looked at the World Economic Forum’s GGI – a weighted measure of the gender gap with respect to economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival – as well as the Gender Equity Index from the Social Watch Group, which includes economic participation rate and income earned, educational literacy rate and school enrollment, and empowerment as reflected by percentage of women in technical, management, and government positions.
And just in case you’re wondering, the worst country in both is Yemen while the best in both is Sweden. The United States falls around 30 in both.
Unsurprisingly (to me), the numbers were a direct correlation. Women fared better in math in the more gender equal nations. But what’s surprising is that so did men.
There’s this common misconception that when one group gets more, the rest get less. But this study completely debunks that. Men in this country don’t have to worry about getting less just because women are empowered to achieve more. Their education only pushes us up the ladder with them.
“We found that boys — as well as girls — tend to do better in math when raised in countries where females have better equality, and that’s new and important,” says Kane. “It makes sense that when women are well-educated and earn a good income, the math scores of their children of both genders benefit. These changes would help give all children an optimal chance to succeed. This is not a matter of biology: None of our findings suggest that an innate biological difference between the sexes is the primary reason for a gender gap in math performance at any level. Rather, these major international studies strongly suggest that the math-gender gap, where it occurs, is due to sociocultural factors that differ among countries, and that these factors can be changed.”