Study: Girls can compete in math

Competitive Timed Tests Might Be Contributing to the Gender Gap in Math, writes Emily Richmond inThe Atlantic.

Boys do better than girls in timed math contests. But a new study of Utah elementary students finds that girls do just as well as boys in a second round of math competition and begin to do better by the third round. Furthermore, “the first-round advantage for boys disappeared if the time element was removed from that competition,” writes Richmond.

“One of the reasons girls don’t do well in competitive settings is that they don’t think they’re as good as boys—but they really are,” said Brigham Young University economist Joseph Price, one of the study’s co-authors. “That’s an information problem, rather than evidence that girls are destined for a certain outcome.”

‘Getting something right in one shot” and “working within a rigid time limit” isn’t a big part of learning math, argues Richmond, who admits she was lousy at timed math drills in school. “Isn’t it more about mastering concepts and building skills over a longer time frame, and having the patience to tackle challenging problem sets that might require multiple attempts?”

Richmond is worried about the gender gap in math. I worry about the gender gap in reading, writing, history, civics and biology, as well as the gap in high school graduation, college enrollment and college graduation. Schoolboys aren’t outperforming schoolgirls in very much these days.

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  1. Mark Roulo says:

    “Richmond is worried about the gender gap in math.”


    Because when boys under perform girls, it isn’t a problem. I don’t know why not.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I believe the “girls can’t do math well” is one rooted in our culture. All of those international comparison studies show plenty of countries where girls score better than boys, or on par with them.

  3. So this woman claims that girls are just as good as boys at math — if you eliminate one of the key parts of the competition. That’s really twisted logic. A key measure of how good you are at a skill such as math is how quick you are at it. Her approach makes just as little sense as saying that girls are just as good as boys at football as long as you don’t allow players to touch each other.

    I don’t have an opinion about all the reasons why boys do better than girls in math in U.S. schools. I assume that some of it is cultural, but I’m sure there are other factors. Regardless, you can’t reasonably rig the outcome of something by arbitrarily changing the rules to benefit someone who’s not doing well at the fundamental contest.

    • I wonder if there’s also a selection bias at work here – The early levels of the math competitions (like ASME and whatnot) are usually open to whoever wants to give it a try. Girls may be more likely to volunteer to take an extra test than boys. Then, at level 2, only those who are actually good at math are still in the contest, so the gender gap would disappear. The problem at level one might be that boys only try if they think there’s a chance they could pass….

      • I still remember how badly I did the one time I took that test! I had a migraine, I couldn’t focus, and I ended up getting the second lowest score in the school. It did scare me off from math, in the sense that I avoided anything beyond Spivak when I got to college….

  4. Girls not performing well in math in high school? Find a way to fix that, STAT!

    Boys not performing well in general in college? Screw ’em, should have paid more attention in high school (and certainly all the drugs we gave them can’t possibly have anything to do with anything).

    Post modern thinking in general and political correctness in particular will be the downfall of Western civilization. Well, maybe the verb is wrong and should be “has been” instead of “will be”. I suppose that part is debatable…

  5. As a general rule, females outperform males in high school and college, but in many cases, math always seems to be a hangup, and I trace a lot of this back to piss poor math preparation in elementary school.

    A recent article here showed that math is very important in the first grade, and has a lot to do as to how far a student (male or female) will progress in math.

    I’d say that if the student knows the underlying concepts of math, they can do it, regardless of sex.

    As for Rob’s comment, it’s spot on…the fact that males have been losing ground to females in education doesn’t seem to be a concern to anyone, esp. educators, but the latest posting of ‘No Math, No Job’ seems to indicate how much of a problem employers are finding workers with the required basic math skills (and in reading that posting, the math skills required are very basic).


  6. commentariette says:

    I’m not convinced. Being fast at math is a huge part of being good at it – it means that you’ve internalized it. It’s sort of like the different between reading fluently and sounding out words and pointing at each word.