Sunday, June 01, 2008

Girls, Mathematics, and Sexual Equality

The Economist reports on a study published in Science this week* that compared mathematics and reading scores of 15-year olds from 40 different countries. The twist: they also compared the test results to measures of "social sexual equality", including economic and political opportunities, education and well-being for women, cultural attitudes towards women, female economic activity in a country, and women's political participation. Their result (see chart):

On average, girls' maths scores were, as expected, lower than those of boys. However, the gap was largest in countries with the least equality between the sexes (by any score), such as Turkey. It vanished in countries such as Norway and Sweden, where the sexes are more or less on a par with one another. The researchers also did some additional statistical checks to ensure the correlation was material, and not generated by another, third variable that is correlated with sexual equality, such as GDP per person. They say their data therefore show that improvements in maths scores are related not to economic development, but directly to improvements in the social position of women.
There were still some gender differences that did not appear to be little affected by culture: boys were better at geometry and girls were better at reading - although their reading scores relative to boys also improved as their social position did.

The article suggests that the fact that girls do so well in reading might be part of the reason why women aren't better represented in "maths-heavy" professions such as engineering in societies where they do as well as boys in mathematics.
However, as David Ricardo observed almost 200 years ago, economic optimisation is about comparative advantage. The rise in female reading scores alongside their maths scores suggests that female comparative advantage in this area has not changed. According to Paola Sapienza, a professor of finance at Northwestern University in Illinois who is one of the paper's authors, that is just what has happened. Other studies of gifted girls, she says, show that even though the girls had the ability, fewer than expected ended up reading maths and sciences at university. Instead, they went on to be become successful in areas such as law. In other words, girls may acquire an absolute advantage over boys as a result of equal treatment.
I don't agree that career choice is necessarily only about economics, since we aren't exposed to and encouraged to pursue all fields equally. A boy who builds soap box cars with his dad and who is praised for his math skills may be more likely to find himself interested in engineering than a girl who is encouraged to bake cookies with her mom and is praised for her writing ability, even if that girl and boy actually turn out to have similar mathematical ability.

For more discussion about career "choice" in science and engineering see the posts at echidne of the snakes, The World's Fair, and Pure Pedantry on the recent Boston Globe article that claims "When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women - highly qualified for the work - stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else."

* Guiso L et al. "Culture, Gender and Math" Science 320(5880):1164-1165 (2008). DOI: 10.1126/science.1154094

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9 comments:

mithun.sridharan said...

Hi there, its really enterprising that you're blogging about Women in Engineering and Science. I wrote a higher level blog post here : http://mithuns-memoirs.blogspot.com/2008/06/gender-thing.html

Perhaps, you could read my post and leave your comments. I'd be glad to refer your blog in my posts, if you wont mind it.

Thanks,
MS

Lusitania said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Sapienza needs to learn some math herself. Finland scores higher on the equality scale than Iceland, yet boys are 12 points ahead in math abilities according to the PISA data. Germany is ranked 7th on the scale, but girls are a whopping 20 points behind.

And Jordan and Kyrgyzstan are 104th and 70th in the equality ratings, yet there girls do as well in math as boys.

Strange, ain't it? Also strange that Sapienza didn't pull out the other glaring assumption given by her line of reasoning: Boys being extremely discriminated when it comes to reading.

Le cinq blog said...

I agree with what you wrote in this entry.
I quote
"I don't agree that career choice is necessarily only about economics, since we aren't exposed to and encouraged to pursue all fields equally. A boy who builds soap box cars with his dad and who is praised for his math skills may be more likely to find himself interested in engineering than a girl who is encouraged to bake cookies with her mom and is praised for her writing ability, even if that girl and boy actually turn out to have similar mathematical ability."
It is all about what they are encouraged enough to pursue.It gets easier if they themlseles can percieve their interest in a particular field as socially acceptable and as gender normal.
If math is projected as something they are 'normally' not expected to be good at, nor as something they applauded for if they chose to show interest,they would hesitate to even try and explore that field.

mithun.sridharan said...

Do I need to say anything more?
http://www.microsoft.com/smallbusiness/resources/management/leadership-training/do-women-make-better-managers.aspx
Respect ladies..

Peggy said...

Thanks for the link Mithun.

Anonymous: I don't think the paper is claiming that there is a 1:1 correspondence between the equality scores and girls' math achievement. Instead there is a general correlation between the two. I guess you are claiming that Guiso and colleagues cherry-picked their data to get their results. Since I don't know how they selected their examples, and I'm not familiar with the original data set, I can't comment on that. Even if they did pick their data to prove their point, that doesn't change the fact that the gender gap in math scores varies a lot from country to country, suggesting that the gap is not due to an inherent difference in the ability of girls and boys in mathematics.

Also, in what way are boys discriminated against in reading education? If that is the case, that discrimination appears to be universal, since the gender gap in reading scores doesn't vary the way the math scores do.

Le cinq blog: I think that that is the power of the programs aimed at introducing girls to science and engineering. It's not trying to force them to pursue a career in a field they aren't interested in, it's introducing girls to those fields in the first place.

Peggy said...

Thanks for the links mithun!

mithun.sridharan said...

Sure ,no probs

Z said...

Thanks for pointing out this interesting article. I agree with the anonymous commenter (5:21 AM), in that the reading scores leave a big hole in the study's conclusions, though I think the data actually suggest that there are inherent differences between boys and girls. (You point out that if it was explained by discrimination, it would have to be universally present in gender-equal countries and not -- that's exactly why it doesn't seem like it could be discrimination.) I've explained my reasoning in depth here on my blog, if you're interested.