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Gender Differences in Mathematics

For decades, boys have consistently scored higher than girls on standardized mathematics tests, such as the SAT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). High school and college mathematics classes usually contain more males than females. Those seeking to explain this gender disparity have typically put the blame on outmoded social stereotypes. Recently, however, they have added discoveries in brain science as potential explanations. They cite, for example, that male brains are about 6 to 8 percent larger than female brains. But males are on the average about 6 to 8 percent taller than females, which could also explain the similar differences in brain sizes. And brain imaging studies show that males seem to have an advantage in visual-spatial ability (the ability to rotate objects in their heads) while females are more adept at language processing. In female brains, the bundle of nerves that connects the two cerebral hemispheres, called the corpus callosum, is proportionally larger and thicker than in male brains. This suggests that communication between the two hemispheres is more efficient in females than in males. However, in male brains, communication appears to be more efficient within a hemisphere. But whether these differences translate into a genetic advantage for males over females in mathematical processing remains to be seen and proved.

Stereotype Threat

Although the genders have differed on test results in mathematics, researchers believe social context plays an important role. Differences in career choices, for instance, are due not to differing abilities in mathematics but to cultural factors, such as subtle but pervasive gender expectations that emerge in high school. One study reported that merely telling females that a mathematics test often shows gender differences was enough to hurt their performance (Spencer, 1999). This phenomenon, called stereotype threat, occurs when people believe they will be evaluated based on societal stereotypes about their particular group. The researchers gave a mathematics test to males and females. They told half the females that the test would show gender differences, and told the rest that it would find none. Females who expected gender differences did significantly worse on the test than males. Those females who were told there was no gender disparity performed equally to males on the test. Moreover, the experiment was conducted with females who were top performers in mathematics.

Another study of stereotype threat was designed to have people think of their strengths rather than their stereotyped weaknesses (McGlone & Aronson, 2006). Would that serve to improve their performance in areas where they were not supposed to do well, as in mathematics? Ninety college students, half male and half female, completed a questionnaire. One group was asked if they lived in a single-sex or coed dormitory, as this question in previous studies was shown to activate male and female stereotypes. A second group was asked why they chose to attend a private liberal arts college, an attempt, according to the researchers, to activate their “snob schema.” The third group, used as controls, were asked to write about their experiences living in the northeastern part of the United States.

After taking a standard test of visual-spatial abilities associated with mathematics performance, the gender gap closed among those who were primed to think about their status as students in an exclusive liberal arts college. The female scores improved while the male scores were the same as the control group. There was no significant difference between the male and female scores. Simply manipulating the way female students thought of themselves improved their test performance.

Instructional Approaches Narrow the Gap

Although most neuroscientists will admit to gender differences in how the brain processes information, especially in young children, they are reluctant to support the concept that these differences offer a lifelong learning advantage for one sex over the other in any academic area. Spelke (2005) reviewed 111 studies and papers and found that most suggest that the male’s and the female’s abilities for mathematics and science have a genetic basis in cognitive systems that emerge in early childhood but give males and females on the whole equal aptitude for mathematics and science.

It is important for educators to know about these gender differences and how they change through various stages of human development. The danger here is that people will think that if the differences are innate and unchangeable, then nothing can be done to improve the situation. Such ideas are damaging because they leave the student feeling discouraged, and they ignore the brain’s plasticity (the ability to continually change through experience) and exceptional ability to learn complex information when suitably motivated.  A variety of teaching approaches and strategies may indeed make up for these gender differences.


McGlone, M. S., & Aronson, J. (2006, September-October). Stereotype threat, identity salience, and spatial reasoning. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27, 486–493.

Spelke, E. S. (2005). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? A critical review. American Psychologist, 60, 950–958.

Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4–28.

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