Why do the best-educated girls do worse at math than top-educated boys?
Concern about this deficit exploded into public consciousness 35 years ago, when researchers in the department of psychology at Johns Hopkins Universitypublished an article suggesting the gap might be caused by a “superior male mathematical ability.”
The debate that ensued was furious. It was so hot that a quarter of a century later, a similar controversy contributed to the ouster of Lawrence Summers from his post as the president of Harvard.
Was there anything “natural” about the performance gap? Or was it the product of gender bias working its way through schools? As the debate raged, ending the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and math became a critical policy priority.
Amid the din over top girls’ mathematical abilities, something important was forgotten: What is happening that so many boys are falling behind in pretty much everything else?
Last week the Organization for Economic Cooperation collective think tank of the world’s industrialized nations — published a report about gender inequality in education, based on the latest edition of its PISA standardized tests taken by 15-year-olds around the world.
The gender gap in math persists, it found. Top-performing boys score higher in math than the best-performing girls in all but two of the 63 countries in which the tests were given, including the United States.
Test scores in science follow a similar, if somewhat less lopsided, pattern. And women are still steering clear of scientific careers: Across the O.E.C.D. nations, only 14 percent of young women entering college for the first time chose a science-related field, compared with 39 percent of men.
But these are hardly the most troubling imbalances. The most perilous statistic in the O.E.C.D.’s report is about the dismal performance of less educated boys, who are falling far behind girls.
Six out of 10 underachievers in the O.E.C.D. — who fail to meet the baseline standard of proficiency across the tests in math, reading and science — are boys. That includes 15 percent of American boys, compared with only 9 percent of girls. More boys than girls underperform in every country tested except Luxembourg and Liechtenstein.
Across the board, girls tend to score higher than boys in reading, which the O.E.C.D. considers the most important skill, essential for future learning.
At the bottom, the gap is enormous: The worst-performing American girls — who did worse in reading tests than 94 out of every 100 of their peers — scored 49 points more than bottom-ranked boys, a 15 percent gap. And the deficit across the O.E.C.D. was even bigger.
These deficits have not made it to the top of the policy agenda. But they pose a direct threat to social cohesion and economic prosperity.
“The message you get is that girls around the world don’t get a chance in education, but that is not true for most of the world,” said Gijsbert Stoet, who teaches psychology at the University of Glasgow and has studied educational inequality globally. “Boys around the world don’t do well in education. What surprises me is the lack of eagerness to solve the problems that boys face.”
Men’s educational attainments have fallen decidedly behind women’s. By 2012, 34 percent of women aged 25 to 64 across O.E.C.D. countries had attained a college degree, compared with 30 percent of men.
“Trapped in a cycle of poor performance, low motivation, disengagement with school and lack of ambition,” as the O.E.C.D. puts it, many young men are in no shape to succeed in a job market that requires increasing skill levels.
And it is not only the least educated boys who are falling behind. Research by Mr. Stoet and David Geary of the University of Missouri based on PISA tests from 2000 to 2009 concluded that on average, boys score worse than girls across the three subjects in 70 percent of the countries tested.
“What will be the implication for society 20 years down the line, given that men have a larger potential for violent action?” Mr. Stoet asked. “Shouldn’t we actually be worried about this?”
The question is what to do about it.
Part of the answer is about raw development. The O.E.C.D.’s latest report suggests that economic and social progress reduces boys’ deficits. The gaps are usually smaller in more developed countries. While the O.E.C.D. did not find a systematic relation between the gender gap and socioeconomic status in the United States, the general pattern meshes with findings that American boys from poor, single-mother families tend to do worse than girls.
And yet one thing to understand is that while social and economic development might help boys, research suggests it won’t reduce girls’ math deficits. Over all, girls outperform boys on the standardized tests by some of the widest margins in relatively poor countries, like Malaysia and Thailand, and in nations like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar that have little in the way of women’s rights. The gender gap in math at the top actually widens as living conditions improve. Girls’ scores improve, but boys’ scores improve more.
Moreover, the dismal performance of so many boys in well-developed countries like the United States suggests development alone is not enough to lift their educational prospects.
The O.E.C.D.’s suggestions to close gender gaps in education are hardly earth-shattering. Top-performing girls suffer from a lack of self-confidence in their mathematical abilities. Boys, by contrast, are much more likely to be disengaged. They play more video games. They devote less time to homework and read less for fun, especially complex and demanding books.
Parents, it suggested, could do more to encourage their daughters to enter scientific and technical fields. And they could force their sons to do their homework. Teachers could be better trained to encourage girls in math and educate boys from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. Notably, they could stop typecasting boys as troublesome, and giving them lower grades than girls. “It is unclear how ‘punishing’ boys with lower grades or requiring them to repeat grades for misbehavior will help them,” the O.E.C.D. noted. “In fact, these sanctions may further alienate them from school.”
Genes alone cannot explain educational inequality. But recent research from Mr. Stoet and others has put in doubt the prevailing belief that education gaps are mostly due to broader gender disparities. Other research suggests women’s lack of interest in scientific careers might reflect deeply ingrained preferences. Girls who perform at the top in math might pursue something else because they are even stronger in other subjects.
The bottom line is that strategies premised on the belief that gender gaps in education merely reflect discrimination in society have not closed the longstanding deficits of the best-educated girls. And they have done nothing for boys.