Bangalore: Boys are better than girls at math, right?
Yes and no.
Not in societies that practice gender equality, says new research in Friday’s issue of journal Science.
And, yes, in India, which performs poorly on a widely accepted gender gap index.
There’s no end to stereotypes when it comes to performance in math among boys and girls. The existence, degree, and origin of a gender gap—difference in scores of boys and girls—have long been debated. However, the new research demonstrates that girls perform better in mathematics in more gender equal societies.
In their article in Science, researchers from universities in Europe and the US report that the so-called gender gap in math skills seems to have a correlation with environmental factors and can be bridged by education or social programmes.
“The gap doesn’t exist in countries in which men and women have access to similar resources and opportunities,” said Paola Sapienza, a co-author of the article from the Kellogg School of Management in Illinois, the US.
Sapienza and her colleagues analysed data from more than 276,000 children in 40 countries. The large number of subjects and broad range of social systems represented were key to the validity of the study. India does not figure in the list simply because it does not participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment, an internationally standardized assessment of math, reading, science and problem-solving ability.
Sapienza said in a mail that the researchers did not have data for India, but that their model usually showed a strong correlation between “emancipation” of women and the absence of a gender gap in math skills.
An improvement in the condition of women “in India could be associated with better performance in mathematics”, Sapienza added.
Smaller studies in India have shown the existence of a gender gap in math skills and ascribed it to social factors.
For instance, a five-city study of 32,000 students of classes IV, VI and VIII by the Ahmedabad-based Educational Initiatives Pvt. Ltd in association with Wipro Ltd’s community initiatives group in 2006 showed that boys outperformed girls by a margin that was “statistically significant in mathematics, in all classes”. The gap widens even more among better-performing students and in the case of difficult questions.
“We believe that these differences are not because boys are inherently better in mathematics than girls, but due to social messages encouraging boys to do better in this subject and probably discouraging girls,” said Educational Initiatives’ authors.
One of the tools used by Sapienza and colleagues is the Gender Gap Index (GGI) developed by the World Economic Forum. The researchers found that in more gender equal countries, such as Sweden and Norway, the gender gap in math skills disappears. By that measure, India, which ranks 114 (among 128 countries) according to 2007 GGI, would have fared poorly in terms of a gender gap in math skills. In fact, it even lost a few points over 2006, which Sapienza believes is because India’s sex ratio at birth fell to 0.89 for every boy.
“The data indicates that India has a very low GGI because it performs very poorly on the economic, education and he-alth sub-indices,” said Sapienza. These scores are partially strengthened by a better performance on political empowerment, the fourth sub-index used to calculate GGI and on which India ranked 21 in 2007.
Gender equality even reflects on reading ability. The research found a “striking gender gap” in reading skills. In more gender equal societies, the girls’ advantage in reading over boys increases further.
The gender gap does exist in math (and science) in India, but bodies such as the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), which is preparing a report for the government on excellence in math and science education, says that the rural-urban divide is more conspicuous in these fields and needs more attention.
“I think there is the larger issue of rural versus urban and once one focuses on tapping this potential, sub-schemes for women within can be integrated,” said Sujatha Ramdorai, a mathematician at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai and a member of NKC.
Ramdorai is, however, optimistic that the International Congress in Math, to be held in Hyderabad in 2010, will bring attention to the issue. The European Women in Mathematics (association) is keen to link up with the yet-to-be-formed Asian Women in Math (association) at this congress.
“The European and American women (associations) in math are very mature and active organizations, which do an excellent job of mentoring women students,” she added.