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Economist: girls actually better than boys at maths

Shows no sign of it herself, however

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Update An economist in America has published research stating that girls have at least as much innate mathematical ability as boys. Paola Sapienza contends that the fact of girls almost always doing worse in maths exams results mainly from sexual discrimination.

"The math gender gap can be eliminated, and it is indeed eliminated in some countries,” says Sapienza. “Our research indicates that in more gender equal societies, girls will gain an absolute advantage relative to boys.”

Sapienza and her co-authors reached their conclusion by looking at boy-vs-girl maths performance in different countries, and checking this against various measures which indicate how sexually equal each country is believed to be.

The maths test figures used were from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), set up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The PISA data included standardised test results from some 276,000 children in forty countries.

As for equality, various figures were used, most notably the Gender Gap Index from the World Economic Forum. This is worked out according to various measures, such as the support given to working mums, proportion of women who work, females in politcs etc. A value of zero GGI indicates "inequality" (males totally dominating; women do no work, earn no money, don't appear at all in politics etc). A GGI of 1 equals "equality" (women just the same as men in these areas).

Presumably there could exist a condition where the GGI approached infinity, in which the zero state was reversed and men were totally crushed. However, no country has even achieved a rating of 1 yet; in every nation on Earth, according to the GGI, women are disadvantaged to some degree.

Sapienza and her colleagues noted that in Iceland, girls actually beat boys by a small margin on the PISA maths tests. Iceland scores high on womens' lib, at GGI 0.78. By contrast, Turkey - where the men keep their women firmly under the thumb (GGI 0.59) - showed girls lagging. The top four countries for gender equality are all in northern Europe: Sweden, Norway and Finland are the only ones which beat Iceland. (You can see the latest rankings in pdf here).

“As a European, I’m not surprised that the top countries are the northern European,” said Sapienza - who comes from Italy herself.

QED, then. In the northern-Euro countries, where the human race is most nearly approaching gender equality - though not by any means there yet - girls are already outstripping boys at maths, as they often do in non-mathematical subjects. In the gender-equal society of the future, girls really could be expected to trounce the chaps on all suits. Men just aren't as intelligent as women.

Steady on, though. You can download the PISA 2006 figures here (xls spreadsheet, table 6.2c).

As far as we can make out, Turkish girls aren't doing nearly as badly as Sapienza says (6 points down on the boys, not 23). Perhaps there's a typo somewhere. But there are other problems: the Icelander girls' 4-point lead is there, as noted, but it's a statistically insignificant result. That means it's within the variation you could expect from the sample with no bias present.

There is, however, one country where the girls thumped the boys at maths in a statistically significant fashion. But it's not in progressive northern Europe - it's Qatar, lying 109th in the gender-equality rankings with a GGI of 0.6 - almost as male-chauvinist as Turkey.

And what of so-progressive Finland, actually ahead of Iceland in gender equality? Boys ahead in maths by a statistically-significant 12 points. Ouch. Boys are significantly ahead in Norway, too, the second-most-gender-equal country in the world. In Germany - seventh best worldwide at gender equality - the girls are simply nowhere, a shocking 20 points down on the chaps. Indeed, very few girls anywhere lag as far behind their male contemporaries as those of progressive Germany. (Those of Austria and Colombia do, though. Both countries score higher than the USA on gender equality.)

Meanwhile, girls appear to be somewhere near equal maths performance with boys - that is, the difference between the sexes falls within expected variation - in various other places. Jordan and Kyrgyzstan rather leap to the eye, actually. Girls do fine at maths in both nations, yet these places are way down (104th and 70th) in the equality rankings.

“What are these northern European countries doing so that there is no gap?" asks Sapienza. But Norway, Germany, Denmark and Finland do show a statistically significant gap in her own chosen data set, for goodness' sake. Unlike Qatar, Jordan and Kyrgyzstan.

Even for an economist, this shows a poor grasp of mathematics.

In the end boys may or may not be innately better than girls at maths, but one thing's for sure: associate professor Sapienza hasn't added anything to the debate, perhaps because she herself doesn't seem to understand maths at all.

Her twaddle can be read in the new issue of Science, or there are summaries here and with more detail here. ®

Update

We've already had a fair bit of angry mail on this one. Sample quote: "To you, one word only: Moron" [many more words then followed, and indeed another email from the same person]. However, two further points: the research apparently draws on the PISA 2003 survey rather than the 2006 one, presumably explaining the discrepancy in the Turkish maths scores. Also, another reader flags up the fact that Sapienza's co-authors are all male, which makes this article "an excellent example of discrimination against women". (Sapienza is the lead author, though, and none of the others have their picture at the top of the press releases.)

The authors do all seem to be economists, which was actually the group we were trying to discriminate against here.

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