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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Girls can't do math.

Got your attention, didn’t I? I figured that such an outrageous claim would have that effect, even though there are people who actually believe it, as portrayed satirically in yesterday’s XKCD cartoon:

How it works

The clueless guy on the left is a bit more blatant than most, but his view actually permeates our society — which is what makes the cartoon work. And in subtler ways it’s not just males who believe it. For instance, it’s easy to persuade boys to take BC Calculus, but girls often need convincing even when they’re among the top math students in their class.

A former student of mine who has been a math fanatic for years and is now a freshman at Wellesley writes about this problem in her “Math, Running, Fife & Drum, Education, Life...” blog:
All of my friends who are interested in math who are girls are very unconfident in their mathematical ability while the boys are confident... [T]hrough all my math experiences I’ve met mostly boys and few girls, most of the girls were also Asian (a different topic...) and most of the girls are not really interested in math but are more interested in science and math being a big part of science they also do math but in the future don’t have much interest in math. On the math team I have been on for the past two years there were 50 people each year and total I think about 70 people, at most 20 were girls, none of them have the same extreme interest in math as I do, though they enjoy math they could not imagine reading a math book for fun (something I do very often) or doing math in the future, when I suggest it most of them sort of laughed, most of them want to be pre-med...
Do read the rest of Kelly’s post, as it provides a lot of interesting context surrounding this issue. (You will have to put up with the teenspeak style, although in Kelly’s case most of the writing is standard English.)

So I was curious about how the grades of my students correlate with their genders. My impression — before looking at data — is that while most of the very top math students are male, girls on the average do slightly better. (Again, we’re talking about grades, not about genuine interest in math.) So now let’s look at the data:
Last year’s final grades from my students show an average of 85.7 for boys and 83.1 for girls.
Hmmm... apparently my hypothesis was half wrong. Most of the top students were indeed male, but males also earned higher averages overall than did females. This is a small sample, so I’m not sure that it really means anything. Still, it’s not what I had expected. Maybe the social pressures for girls not to do well in math extend more deeply than I had thought.

On a somewhat different but probably related matter, it’s worth noting that most teachers (both female and male) have a tendency to prefer teaching classes that are primarily female rather than classes that are primarily male. Although there are plenty of exceptions, girls are less likely to be behavior problems, more likely to take notes, and less likely to give the teacher a hard time. This is more just a matter of testosterone poisoning, as even very young boys tend to exhibit many of the negative characteristics of stereotypical male behavior. But the puzzle is how this interacts with achievement in math. If more girls than boys take their work seriously, do their homework, and cooperate with the teachers, why do fewer girls do well in math? Perhaps they just have different priorities.

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