Sex and Maths

(Source: Patrick Mannion, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Readers, I’m sure, are familiar with many of the biological and cultural explanations proffered for differences in mental abilities between the sexes. Here’s an an article in the Economist magazine with some strong evidence for, well…both sides to the debate, and with some surprising conclusions about Korea too:

Girls are becoming as good as boys at mathematics, and are still better at reading

TRADITION has it that boys are good at counting and girls are good at reading. So much so that Mattel once produced a talking Barbie doll whose stock of phrases included “Math class is tough!”

Although much is made of differences between the brains of adult males and females, the sources of these differences are a matter of controversy. Some people put forward cultural explanations and note, for example, that when girls are taught separately from boys they often do better in subjects such as maths than if classes are mixed. Others claim that the differences are rooted in biology, are there from birth, and exist because girls’ and boys’ brains have evolved to handle information in different ways.

Luigi Guiso of the European University Institute in Florence and his colleagues have just published the results of a study which suggests that culture explains most of the difference in maths, at least. In this week’s Science, they show that the gap in mathematics scores between boys and girls virtually disappears in countries with high levels of sexual equality, though the reading gap remains.

Student with Math Formula on Her BackDr Guiso took data from the 2003 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. Some 276,000 15-year-olds from 40 countries sat the same maths and reading tests. The researchers compared the results, by country, with each other and with a number of different measures of social sexual equality. One measure was the World Economic Forum’s gender-gap index, which reflects economic and political opportunities, education and well-being for women. Another was based on an index of cultural attitudes towards women. A third was the rate of female economic activity in a country, and the fourth measure looked at women’s political participation.

As long-term readers will know, I usually have problems with virtually anything the Economist says about international comparisons of education standards, its consistent praise of the high scores of South Korean students, for instance, undermined by South Koreans themselves finding their education system appalling (a fact which a whole five minutes of checking on the internet would reveal). There’s little scope for misinterpretations of correlations between reading and writing scores and measures of sexual equality though, but still, as you can see, the researchers were at pains to keep the variables down to a minimum (source, right: Tattoo Lover; CC BY-SA 2.0).

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.

And notice where Korea fits into that scale:

(Source: The Economist)

That was quite surprising, and confusing. For sure, in terms of its gender empowerment measure,   Korea is one of the most sexist countries in the world, and although it was less than a generation ago that girls’ university and even high-school educations were often sacrificed for the sake of their brothers’, I’ve heard from many different sources that the Korean education system today is relatively meritocratic. Indeed, Michael Seth in this must-read book on the subject, argues that it is one of its greatest strengths, albeit one unfortunately (and ironically) at odds with the great respect, status and deference given to high achievers also.

I’d imagined, then, that young Korean women confront sexism more once they enter the workforce, as despite their educations there remain strong societal expectations that they will be happy to work at non-advancing jobs in their twenties and then effectively retire upon marriage, not unlike the situation in Western countries in the 1950s and ’60s.

But then these tests were for 15 year-olds, so clearly there is some sex-based factor at work in the Korean education system that I wasn’t aware of. Why do Korean girls do so badly at math then? I’m open to suggestions.

The only clue I have is that Maths (and English) is considered a hard and difficult subject for students, which is why in its 19-year history the chain of institutes I work for didn’t hire any female teachers to teach it until literally last week, only men being considered authoritative enough to get students to study in class. Certainly, the institutes I work for are quite unique in that regard, and much more demanding of students than most, but still: I think it’s quite telling that the policy was in place. And if students of either sex disliked it so much, then I can’t imagine that girls with interest and/or ability in it would have been particularly encouraged to pursue it, given their relative absence in engineering and scientific fields in Korea. Perhaps Korean education isn’t quite as meritocratic as I thought?

(On a side note, it says a great deal about the sort of English taught at my institute that only men were considered capable of teaching that also, despite — I assume — a majority of English {and languge} teachers in Korea {and probably the world} being women)

The one mathematical gap that did not disappear was the differences between girls and boys in geometry. This seems to have no relation to sexual equality, and may allow men to cling on to their famed claim to be better at navigating than women are….

Again, surprising in a Korean context. I’ve been teaching 13 and 14 year-olds, on-and-off, for a good eight years now, and I’ve noticed that their math textbooks are always just full of geometry, far more than I ever had to do at their age. For sure, frantically copying each other’s answers in breaks between classes doesn’t equate to real learning, something they’re forced to do because they wouldn’t possibly have enough time to do all the homework required of them (let alone — heaven forbid — eat and sleep too). But still, if there’s one country where I’d thought girls would have been good at geometry, it would have been Korea. Something is clearly up (source, right: unknown).

The article gets more interesting (and controversial) after that:

….However, the gap in reading scores not only remained, but got bigger as the sexes became more equal. Average reading scores were higher for girls than for boys in all countries. But in more equal societies, not only were the girls as good at maths as the boys, their advantage in reading had increased.

This suggests an interesting paradox. At first sight, girls’ rise to mathematical equality suggests they should be invading maths-heavy professions such as engineering-and that if they are not, the implication might be that prejudice is keeping them out. 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 the Kellogg School of Management 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. This is something that society, more broadly, has not yet taken on board. Mattel may wish to take note that among Teen Talk Barbie’s 270 phrases concerning shopping, parties and clothes, at least one might usefully have been, “Dostoevsky rocks!”

(Source: Vaguely Artistic; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’m very much a proponent of the existence of some fundamental biological differences in aptitudes between the sexes myself, and do believe that even in a perfect world that there will always be, say more female nurses than male ones, and more male engineers then female ones and so forth. Not for a moment does that mean that I will ever stop or even not positively encourage my daughter to, say, be an engineer, or not take seriously a male nurse, but the above is yet another inconvenient truth against the argument that all difference is due to prejudice.

For more on that I recommend the book The New Sexual Revolution, by Robert Pool (1994), and especially “The Real Truth About The Female Body” in Time Magazine, March 8 1999. I especially recommend checking out the (naturally) numerous comments to the Economist article; as you have to be a subscriber to make a comment, then the dialogue is a lot more intelligent and civilized than you’ll find on most blogs and forums! I especially like this one of Tom West’s, a healthy cautionary message against what I’ve written above:

“Do all feminists rail against the idea that men and women might actually be inherently different?”

The trouble with acknowledging differences is that human beings tend to turn a generality into a specific rule. As soon as you say that it’s natural that men are over-represented in higher math, it becomes instantly harder for any woman to be even average at math. The meme is simplified into “women can’t do math”, and you soon end up with teacher’s wjho won’t work hard to teach girls math, boys and girls that reject those who are good at math as weird and different, and of course, dissuade many from putting in the effort to become good at math because they themselves believe they can’t do math.

As an aside, in my opinion, that was why Larry Summers deserved to lose his job for his remarks. Not that he was necessarily wrong. It was that by virtue of his widely circulated speech, he had legitimized “women can’t do math” in the minds of many, regardless of what he actually meant or believed. (And that people in authority have to be aware of not what their words say, but of what their words will do.)

(Note: Having my blog posts regularly copied and pasted by others myself, normally I’d be loathe to paste an entire article here. But it was of an annoying length that made simply giving excerpts difficult, yet pasting all of it too much. After much time and repeated links wasted on trying the former, I gave up and chose the latter!)

2 thoughts on “Sex and Maths

  1. Hi,

    Just wondering, do you teach math? From my experience of teaching the subject, Korean students are very good at math and I would recommend British, French and American students (whom I have taught) to study under Korean system because it works. No matter what the gender, students who study math in Korea turn out to be very good at the subject.



  2. Neil,

    you’re quite right. The Korean system is indeed very effective at teaching Maths. The Economist article is about relative scores between sexes in each country, not absolute scores between countries, and perhaps I didn’t pay as much attention to that in the post as I should have.


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