Gender differences in Math intelligence: Is it a gift?

In an episode of “The Simpsons”, Springfield Elementary is split into a boys-only and girls-only school. This compels Lisa to dress like a boy (with the ironic name of Jack Boyman), in order to benefit from the math lessons that the girls had been denied. After being rewarded for being the best math student in the school, Lisa proudly reveals her true identity, but Bart trumps her with a humorous although hauntingly significant quote: “The only reason Lisa won is because she learned to think like a boy! I turned her into a burping, farting, bullying, math machine!”

Many girls and boys have been taught to believe, whether consciously or not, that there are certain areas where they are meant to excel, and other areas where they are not. Math has been a thorn in the side of many girls. I performed relatively well in this subject at school, but here’s the paradox: it depended on the teacher. With a teacher who had a more practical teaching method, and who took the time to really explain things, I was the top student in the class. With other teachers, I barely achieved a passing grade.

On Queendom’s classical IQ assessment (classical as in assessing the standard areas – verbal, mathematical, logical, and spatial intelligence), men outperformed women on nearly every scale by a few points, but the most prominent gap was the Arithmetic scale. Women were outscored by over ten points (average for men 113, average for women 102; population average 105 – the IQ scale runs from 55 to 155). While scores were age-dependent (older test-takers outscored younger ones), women still performed below the population average. Even in the area of verbal skill, where women are thought to excel, Queendom’s statistics reveal that men lead in the scoring as well, albeit by 2 points.

Arithmetic is a form of “crystallized” intelligence. This refers to knowledge that you accumulate with education, time, and experience – areas that you can improve as you gain more education, knowledge, and experience. So what’s behind the low scores for women? Long-standing stereotypes, which can impact girls’ confidence and sense of self-efficacy, is one possible theory.

Research by Carol Dweck (2007) indicates that the belief that intelligence in math is a “gift” can be extremely counterproductive for women. In her past research, students who believed that intellectual ability is a gift and fixed, rather the something that can improve with practice and experience, tended to struggle when encountering academic challenges. Research has also shown that teachers can inadvertently “sabotage” their students’ performance based on their own expectations and beliefs. Stevenson et al.’s (1993) research on school performance of Japanese and American students alludes to the fact that this could explain why Japanese students consistently outperform their American counterparts. Japanese teachers tend to expect all students to excel in all subjects, while American teachers may fly on the assumption that intelligence is mostly innate. Stereotypes may be why, in a study by Rammstedt & Rammsayer (2000) where men and women were asked to provide estimates of their intellectual capacity, men provided higher estimates than women of their mathematical, spatial, and reasoning ability, areas which men are thought (and perhaps expected) to excel in.

If you read my previous post on gender roles, you’ll get an idea of how some stereotypes still hold strong. If girls are made to believe, directly or indirectly, that there are some areas where they are not expected to excel, this can become an ingrained belief that could last a lifetime. I still find myself skipping over math questions when I’m debugging an IQ test, but focusing intently on the verbal questions…

What’s your opinion on math intelligence and gender differences? Share your comments below!

Join me for next week’s discussion on coping with stress!

Insightfully yours,

Queen D

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