July 08, 2010

Persistence of gender gap in top science and math performance

From the press release:
A study that examined 30 years of standardized test data from the very highest-scoring seventh graders has found that performance differences between boys and girls have narrowed considerably, but boys still outnumber girls by more than about 3-to-1 at extremely high levels of math ability and scientific reasoning.

At the same time, girls slightly outnumber boys at extremely high levels of verbal reasoning and writing ability.
Intelligence Volume 38, Issue 4, July-August 2010, Pages 412-423

Sex differences in the right tail of cognitive abilities: A 30 year examination

Jonathan Wai et al.


One factor in the debate surrounding the underrepresentation of women in science technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) involves male–female mathematical ability differences in the extreme right tail (top 1% in ability). The present study provides male–female ability ratios from over 1.6 million 7th grade students in the right tail (top 5% in ability) across 30 years (1981–2010) using multiple measures of math, verbal, and writing ability and science reasoning from the SAT and ACT. Male–female ratios in mathematical reasoning are substantially lower than 30 years ago, but have been stable over the last 20 years and still favor males. Over the last two decades males showed a stable or slightly increasing advantage in science reasoning. However, more females scored in the extreme right tail of verbal reasoning and writing ability tests. The potential role of sociocultural factors on changes in the male–female ability ratios is discussed and the introduction of science reasoning as a potential new factor in the debate is proposed. The implications of continued sex differences in math and science reasoning is discussed within the context of the many important interlocking factors surrounding the debate on the underrepresentation of women in STEM.


  1. That guys still beat gals in math is confirmed by a female math teacher I know.
    That gals are verbally better than guys is proven by... well, just try arguing with a woman.

  2. Wow, more searching for women/girls being discriminated in academics... BS

    it's the other way around. Boys overall are performing worse than girls in school, they are dropping out more, and attending college less. There has been a trend of boys doing worse and worse for the last twenty years, and the overall gap between boys and girls is quite large now. Interestingly when boys go to single sex classrooms the gap nearly disappears and even end up doing slightly better than girls in single sex classrooms; both improve when after going to single sex classrooms. Considering both the declining trend for boys over the last 20 years and the strong performance of boys in single sex classrooms I must conclude that it is the schools that are hurting boys. However where is the research and debate for this?!?

    in regards to the most gifted; boys are just more variable and have greater representation at both extremes. As I would expect there are more boys in learning disabled classes. However, despite there being more highly gifted boys, boys are actually under represented in schools for the gifted...

    here is link http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/01/nyregion/01gifted.html?src=mv

  3. Hmmm.

    I think I would defer to researchers at MIT on this topic:


    not those at Duke.

    This has been known for a while, so I'm not sure why Duke suddenly felt the need to make a press release on old hat news.

    And their conclusions do not delve as deeply and introspectively as the MIT research, in examining why girls veer away from science and math, starting at a young age.

  4. I think I would defer to researchers at MIT on this topic:

    Why would you prefer self-selected AMC students to a sample of the general population.

    Interestingly, the study you refer to:

    "This paper uses a new data source, American Mathematics Competitions, to examine
    the gender gap among high school students at very high achievement levels. The data bring
    out several new facts. There is a large gender gap that widens dramatically at percentiles
    above those that can be examined using standard data sources
    . An analysis of unobserved
    heterogeneity indicates that there is only moderate variation in the gender gap across
    schools. The highest achieving girls in the U.S. are concentrated in a very small set of elite
    schools, suggesting that almost all girls with the ability to reach high math achievement
    levels are not doing so.


    "Whereas the boys come from a variety of backgrounds, the top-scoring girls
    are almost exclusively drawn from a remarkably small set of super-elite schools"

  5. Also:

    'A recent paper by Andreescu et al. (2008) analyzes the gender
    composition of IMO teams in order to gain insight into the degree to which the gender gap
    is due to cultural, educational, and other factors that vary across countries. They show
    that there are statistically signi cant di erences in the gender gap across countries and
    emphasize the outliers in their discussion

    "Girls were found to be 12%-24% of the children identi ed as having profound
    mathematical ability when raised under some conditions; under others, they
    were 30-fold or more underrepresented.
    Thus, we conclude that girls with ex-
    ceptional mathematical talent exist; their identi cation and nurturing should
    be substantially improved so this pool of exceptional talent is not wasted." '

    My comment: thus 24% seems to be the upper limit for girls with profound mathematical ability, which translates to a 3-to-1 male-to-female ratio, which is what the current paper finds for extremely high levels of math ability.

  6. @dienekes

    could you please give me some links to the study you refer to in your first post?

  7. Dienekes:

    From the MIT research, which you quote:

    "The highest achieving girls in the U.S. are concentrated in a very small set of elite
    schools, suggesting that almost all girls with the ability to reach high math achievement
    levels are not doing so."

    That's quite a different conclusion from the Duke paper. The MIT study goes to great pains to examine whether there is a selection bias at these elite schools. It concludes that there likely is not and that girls, for some reason, are not achieving at their level of potential capability. The vast majority of girls (and women) underachieve against their own capability math and science.

  8. Dienekes:

    "My comment: thus 24% seems to be the upper limit for girls with profound mathematical ability, which translates to a 3-to-1 male-to-female ratio, which is what the current paper finds for extremely high levels of math ability."

    I wouldn't set a hard boundary for women at 1/3 or 24%. Is there a limit theorum for that?

    The MIT study does not suggest a hard boundary and it does not overstep or make a statement about the "innate" inferiority of girls in math and science, unlike some misinformed university presidents.

    Instead, it suggests that both boys and girls could do better in math and science, at all levels, with better, more progressive, and more advanced K-12 teaching. The MIT publication also points out that overemphasis on the SAT, and underemphasis on advanced math (competitions, proof formulation), is likely undermining true mathematics and scientific learning.




  9. Full text unsecured link:


  10. Its girls and not boys who are more likely to go to the elite schools if they have the aptitude. Even with the differential treatment (that leaves boys disadvantaged) girls still only make up 24% of those with profound mathematical ability.

    The question should be why those boys with the talent are less likely to be recognized or supported the way girls clearly are (there are very few mathematically gifted girls that are not already in the elite schools).

    The article I referred to in my previous post also states that boys are less likely to be seen as "gifted" by the general population, in order to explain part of the reason boys are under represented in schools for the gifted.

    again the IQ spectrum predicts that more boys would be in the gifted schools and more boys would be in the learning disabled schools (which is the case). Though in the current political atmosphere it seems the only thing that boys are allowed to uniquely do is fail...

  11. As far as testing to peoples ability I've noticed that mathematical testing has become more and more verbal over the years (which caters to girls verbal ability). Math is about getting answers. Its just wrong when someone can get more points for a well "explained" answer that is wrong than a correct answer that is not well "explained".

    I had a friend who was very good at math but still struggled on the math side of the sat largely because he was foreign and didn't understand the questions very well... should a persons native language really matter when it comes to math.

  12. "The ratio of 7th graders scoring 700 or above on the SAT-math was about 13 boys to 1 girl when it was measured in a landmark study 30 years ago, but that ratio dropped dramatically in the 1990s, Wai said. Since 1995, the gap has remained steady at about 4 boys to 1 girl."

    Are they taking into consideration that the SAT was recentered in 1995?

  13. The study says far less about how the sample of 7th graders taking SATs and ACTs was developed than I would like to interpret the results.

    Since the material that is tested on the SATs and ACTs is normally taught in high school, and since very few 7th graders took the tests and are in the right tail, the kind of mathematics instruction received by the prodigies is highly relevant to top scores. I would be very cautious about the very atypical and small sample at the extreme right tail indicating something fundamental without knowing a lot more about how the sample came into being and what experiences people in the sample had.

  14. Math test scores are not synonymous with math ability, same story with verbal test scores.

    I'm pretty sure boys spent more time on their math than girls, and girls spent more time talking and reading literature.

    When you take a school test, you don't actually invent the wheel. You just reproduce what you know, and how do you believe people know?


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