University professor discredits gender disparity in math

Katie Eder

Nicole Else-Quest, professor of psychology, led a worldwide research study which debunked the myth that males outperform females in math. 

The results, entitled “Cross-National Patterns of Gender Differences in Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis,” were reported in the January issue of Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association.

The idea for the study came from Janet Shibley Hyde of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was Else-Quest’s graduate adviser while studying there. Hyde, a pioneer of the field of gender issues in psychology, came across similar research from two decades ago, brought it to Else-Quest’s attention and recommended that they update it. 

The two researchers collaborated with Marcia C. Lim of the University of California, Berkeley, whose research interests in education also focus on gender.

“We were interested in gender stereotypes about math and how gender gaps exist within countries for math,” Else-Quest said. “We wondered why gender gaps vary among nations; why there is no gender gap in the United States, why females outperform males in places like Iceland and why males outperform females in places like South Korea.”  

Else-Quest and her fellow researchers looked at data from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment, which represented almost half a million male and female students, ages 14 to 16, from 69 countries. 

The TIMSS data focused on basic knowledge of math, while the PISA data assessed students’ ability to apply their math skills in the real world. 

The TIMSS data also used indicators from the United Nations on the status and welfare of women in each of the 69 countries.

These measures showed that, from nation to nation, the size of the gender gaps varied a great deal. 

Through their meta-analysis, the researchers found that, across the globe, males felt significantly more confident in their abilities and more motivated to excel in math than females did, despite similarities overall in math skills. 

However, the researchers also discovered that in countries where girls have equal access to education as well as female role models in math and science, the gender gap for success in math is much smaller or, in some countries, females outperform males.

“Think of the role models for women in math, science and engineering here at Villanova,” Else-Quest said. “When women are in school and see careers in math and science as options, they’ll get the message to succeed, and they’ll perform just as well as men in those areas.”

Living proof of Else-Quest’s findings are Margaret Shaia and Allison Shank. The two junior math majors at the University have received all of their education in the United States. 

“I had a female physics teacher in high school who was a great role model,” Shaia said. “She was incredibly influential in my decision to be a math major. I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but she was the one who encouraged me to pursue the math degree first and foremost so that I would have a strong background in my field and have the flexibility to do more than teach if I ever wanted.”

Shank also had a female math teacher in high school who encouraged her to pursue a degree in math and strive to one day become a high school math teacher.

On the other side of the world, Else-Quest’s findings hold true, as well. Amy Heewon Cho, a junior international nursing student at Villanova, spent her earlier educational years in her hometown of Seoul, South Korea. 

“In Korea, there are a lot of female teachers, but the role models in math are mostly male,” Cho said. “I felt that I was at the same level at math as the males, but I saw that if the males motivated themselves to do better at math, then they would do better. I won’t lie, I did feel that [the males] had more ability in math, but I still felt that I was good at math and did well on the tests.”

 The international community, including press and policymakers, has become interested in the results of the study.

 The results of the study do not provide any clear-cut causal links, but they do provide the theory that greater social and cultural factors, not biological factors, are what affect the gender gaps in math education and research careers.     

“If our brains were wired the same for math ability, why would there be differences across countries?” Else-Quest said. “Our research shows that it must be social and cultural factors causing these gender gaps in math.” 

Funding for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation.

Else-Quest’s other areas of psychological research focus on how gender issues permeate lifespan development and emotions about the self. She is beginning a study on high school students in Philadelphia.