A few years ago, Former Harvard University President, Lawrence H. Summers made a remark at an academic conference stating that “The innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers.” This comment caused an uproar that eventually contributed to Summers’ demise as the president of Harvard.
Since that remark, there has been a debate in academic circles whether the difference in math performance between boys and girls is “nature” or “nurture.” The debate may be over. In a recent study that was published in Science, four researchers found that out of 276,000 15-year olds in 40 countries who took a math test, girls scored 2 percent lower than boys.
But on its face, the facts are misleading. The researchers found that it was national culture, not innate ability that caused the lower test scores with girls.
In countries that promoted a culture where women were considered subordinate to men, the math scores were lower for girls. These countries included Turkey and Korea. In countries where women have an equal status with men such as Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, there was no difference in test scores between boys and girls. The United States ranked in the middle for both gender inequality/equality and the gap on the math test scores.
The researchers could not determine whether a culture that promoted inequality between men and women caused the gap in test scores between boys and girls was due to a lack of female role models in math (and science); or whether a culture that promoted inequality of men and women created low self-esteem and consequently undermined the girls’ self-confidence in taking the math test. However, Paola Sapienza, one of the authors of the study and a professor of finance at Northwestern University, indicated there is no gender gap in mathematics when the societal culture promotes gender equality.
The findings in this study have profound implications that connect our behavior to learning that takes place in the formal educational setting. If we want our girls to excel in math (and science) in the classroom, it is the responsibility of each one of us to model the principle of the equality of men and women so that we create a cultural attitude that will positively affect self-esteem and confidence – and consequently higher academic performance in math – for both girls and boys.
Dr. Kerry Hart is Interim President of Trinidad State Junior College