Gender Gap in Math Stereotype Largely Dispelled By New International Study

Research led by Villanova Psychology Professor finds little difference in math performance when girls are given opportunity, status and public role models

January 6, 2010

Villanova, Pa. – Girls are just as capable of learning and achieving in mathematics as boys when given the opportunity, encouragement, and women role models to emulate. But, the closing and disappearance of the stereotypical gender gap in math varies across nations, depending on a culture’s level of human development and progress in elevating the status and welfare of women.

Those are the major findings of research led by Nicole Else-Quest, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Villanova University in collaboration with Janet Shibley Hyde, Ph.D. of University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Marcia C. Linn, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley. The trio’s work, titled, “Cross-National Patterns of Gender Differences in Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis,” is published in the January issue of Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

“Our analyses showed that gender equity in school enrollment, women’s share of research jobs, and women’s parliamentary representation were among the most powerful predictors of cross-national variability gaps in math,” the study reveals.

The team’s research was based on  two major international data sets, the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), representing almost half a million students 14-16 years of age. The data estimated the magnitude of differences in mathematics achievement, attitudes and affect across 69 nations.

In examining and synthesizing the TIMSS and PISA results Else-Quest and her co-authors lay to rest the long held myth that girls lack the natural ability to perform mathematics as well as boys. They further demonstrate that nations in which boys do outperform girls in mathematics are nations in which women and girls are denied the same opportunities and status as men and boys. The new findings could have positive implications for greater participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning and careers for girls.

“Generally, boys and girls are equally capable of doing math, contrary to stereotypes. Our findings point to unequal access to education, underrepresentation of women in public office, and lack of female role models in science as factors linked to girls’ academic achievements,” Else-Quest said.

Recent data suggest that the gap has closed in the United States, but is wider in nations with inequitable access to education like Ghana, Morocco, Botswana and Egypt. Girls in these countries must not only overcome the “stereotype threat,” (stereotypes about gender roles and math that may encourage girls to feel anxious and less confident) still present in developed countries, they must also clear more tangible and elemental hurdles tied to daily survival. Even in more highly developed countries, girls’ math achievement suffers when gender equity is denied (such as Japan and Brazil).

“To me, the most surprising finding is that one can find a significant correlation between measures of nations’ gender inequality, developed by the U.N. and other organizations, and the magnitude of the gender gap in math performance in those nations, based on testing of individual students. Societal gender inequality really makes a difference for the lives of girls,” Hyde said.

Boys, according to the study, are generally more confident and “extrinsically and intrinsically motivated to do well in math than were girls.” And, based on past test results, boys have an edge in only one math skill set -- the understanding of spatial relationships, such as those involved in geometry. But, even this differential may be negligible and correctable.

“On the PISA test we found small differences on spatial reasoning items even though this dimension of mathematics is neglected in the curriculum. We attribute this trend towards smaller differences in spatial reasoning, in part, to greater access to graphing calculators, computer games, and other visualizations of spatial relationships,” study coauthor Linn commented.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation.

Villanova University is a co-educational Roman Catholic institution founded by the Order of Saint Augustine in 1842. The University offers a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate degree programs through four colleges: the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, and the College of Nursing, as well as the Villanova School of Law. With a total enrollment that surpasses 10,000 undergraduate, graduate, and law students, Villanova is the oldest and largest Catholic university in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. For more information see