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Girls and Math: Blame the Culture, Not Ability

Last Updated: June 04, 2009.

Raise the bar and watch females succeed, researcher says.

THURSDAY, June 4 (HealthDay News) -- Culture, not biology, might explain why females in some parts of the world don't perform as well as males in math.

That's the conclusion of an analysis of math performance in the United States and abroad that appears in the June 1 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"There are countries where the gender disparity in math performance doesn't exist at either the average or gifted level. These tend to be the same countries that have the greatest gender equality," article co-author Janet Mertz, an oncology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a university news release.

The analysis, which looked at standardized test scores and related sources, detected a pattern in achievement based on socio-cultural factors that either discourage or encourage females at all grade levels to excel at math.

"If you provide females with more educational opportunities and more job opportunities in fields that require advanced knowledge of math, you're going to find more women learning and performing very well in mathematics," Mertz said.

For example, girls at all grade levels in the United States have very similar scores to boys on required standardized math exams. Girls and young women are increasingly taking advanced math classes and seeking college and post-graduate degrees in math, following a climbing arc from the country's more sexist days in the mid-20th century to the more progressive present day.

The researchers' look at math scores and abilities across cultures, ethnicity and countries found that girls do as well as boys in several demographics, with the ratio of girls to boys excelling in math being closely linked to gender equity within the demographic group.

"U.S. culture instills in students the belief that math talent is innate; if one is not naturally good at math, there is little one can do to become good at it," Mertz said. "In some other countries, people more highly value mathematics and view math performance as being largely related to effort."

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about raising healthy, well-adjusted children.

SOURCE: University of Wisconsin-Madison, news release, June 1, 2009