Jun

07

2009

We've all heard statistics about how boys are better than girls when it comes to math. Especially the kinds of advanced math it takes to find solutions to complex problems, to win important prizes and to invent world-changing technologies. According to some people, you can blame this gender gap on basic biology. Female brains are smaller than male brains, which means males are just naturally smarter, and really, what else do you need to know?

It's easy to believe assumptions and stereotypes about girls and math when you look around classrooms where advanced technical subjects are taught. Fewer women fill the seats, and in the top math and science positions, men outnumber women by a dramatic margin. It seems like no matter how many women prove that female brains can be every bit as good at math and science, we still hear that women are just not cut out for crunching numbers.

In other words, if you're a girl and you like math, you should probably quit now, because you will never be as good as the boys. And if you're a girl and you just don't understand math, it's okay, you won't need math anyway. Like Barbie says, Math Is Hard! Let's go shopping!

Or not? Could it be that fewer women excel in math and science fields because they have fewer opportunities? Or because everyone tells them they will do poorly, so they never really try? Is biology to blame for the math-science gender gap, or is culture the culprit?

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says girls are not born to be bad at math. Instead, the authors say, the gender gap stems from cultural inequalities that put girls and women at an unfair disadvantage. Fewer educational and professional opportunities, negative stereotypes, and classroom or workplace dynamics all hinder the potential of girls and women to excel in math.

The authors of this study came to their conclusion by comparing data on gender inequality and math scores from around the world. They found that in countries where men and women had more equal opportunities, women did much better at math. If you're wondering where the United States stands, in 2007 the US was number 32 on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. Not the greatest place to be, but in the US it appears as though the math-science gender gap is narrowing. According to a recent article in the New York Times, there are now more opportunities than ever for women in science and math. If only they paid as well!

Science Buzz is supported by the National Science Foundation.

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