by Rachel Barson, University of Leeds, University of Missouri
March 21, 2013 (TSR) – Twice as many boys are in the world’s top one percent of math students, but girls outdo boys in reading by an even larger margin.
Wide gaps in achievement between boys and girls in math are more common in economically developed countries, where considerable efforts are typically being made to promote equality and encourage more girls to engage in STEM subjects. The gap in achievement in math in the UK is one of the widest in the world, along with countries such as the US, the Netherlands, and Germany.
The study used data of 1.5 million 15 year olds across 75 countries, and examined the gap between boys’ and girls’ achievement levels in math and reading from 2000 to 2009.
“The maths gender gap continues to exist, with boys continuing to outperform girls at all levels. But what is more striking is the extent of the gap at the top, between the brightest girls compared to the brightest boys. This is where we see the biggest gap in maths, despite recent reports that the gap is closing,” says Gijsbert Stoet from the University of Leeds.
“Given it’s usually the highest performing students that are likely to go on to higher education or in to jobs in science and technology, this has huge implications for initiatives which have been designed to encourage girls into STEM fields and reduce gender discrimination. They seem ineffective, given this gap between boys and girls remains.”
Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study comes at a time where there are calls in the UK to increase the number of students studying math after the age 16. Recent findings from the Nuffield Foundation, a charitable trust funding research in education, has also identified performance and attitudes towards math are important factors in determining whether or not young people continue with the subject.
“Efforts should be focused on improving the classroom experience to enable boys and girls to perform equally well, to encourage greater participation and interest in the subject,” says co-author David Geary of the University of Missouri. “While some solutions might make a lot of sense at face value, like role models and gender empowerment, the research does simply not seem to support these proposed solutions.”
Reading scores flipped
The study also reveals some other significant trends for policy makers to consider: When it comes to performance in reading, girls continue to outperform boys and the gap is at its greatest at the lower end of the academic scale.
“In trying to close the sex gap in math scores, the reading gap was left behind. Now, our study has found that the difference between girls’ and boys’ reading scores was three times larger than the sex difference in math scores,” Geary says.
The researchers say girls’ higher scores in reading could lead to advantages in admissions to certain university programs, such as marketing, journalism or literature, and subsequently careers in those fields. Boys lower reading scores could correlate to problems in any career, since reading is essential in most jobs.
“The gender gap in reading gets less attention in the media than the gender gap in maths,” Stoet says. “Yet there was not a single country in which boys exceed girls in reading. And crucially, amongst boys and girls at the lower end of academic performance scale, the gap is not only greater, it is growing.
“What’s critical is that we have identified that there is a relationship between the maths gap and reading gap. In countries where the reading gap between boys and girls is small, we see a larger gap in maths, and vice versa. What this means is that it’s not just a question of focusing on closing the gaps in maths, as research shows there is a trade off between this and reading.
“There are obviously immense difficulties in closing both gaps, and this is something policy makers across the world need to address when considering intervention strategies and how best to allocate resources to improve performance and participation.”