Are boys actually better in math?

In preschool and elementary school boys and girls generally perform similarly on math tests. Later in school, in high school and college, more consistent differences start to emerge. In addition, gender differences are often larger among higher-performing students but not necessarily for lower- or average-performing ones. Within this specific group of higher-performing math students, boys tend to perform better. Similarly, when studies do find gender differences among elementary school children, they find these start to appear for higher-performing students earlier in schooling than they do for lower- and average-performing ones.

Whether a gender difference is found also depends on what type of math the kids are doing. In general, boys tend to outperform girls on tests that are less related to what is taught in schools (like the SAT math test, for example) whereas there tend to be minimal gender differences on statewide standards-based math tests, which are more tied to what’s taught in schools. When it comes to grades in school, which are even more closely tied to the curriculum, girls often outperform boys. A recent meta-analysis of research on the performance of students from elementary age through adulthood found boys tend to outperform girls in more complex areas of math such as those involving more advanced problem-solving. In contrast, there are no differences—and, in some cases, an advantage for girls—on more basic numerical skills and on math problems that have a set procedure for solving them

Two of the factors above, age and the type of math, can impact research results at the same time. This could be partially explained by the young age of the sample, and also because there are often few gender differences found in basic numerical skills.

Although there are differences in math performance between girls and boys of both high school and college age, and when doing certain types of math, these studies find only a small gender difference in math performance. The mean performance scores for boys and girls are about 0.1 to 0.3 standard deviations apart from one another—very small differences and with a lot of overlap between boys’ and girls’ math skills. Thus, boys and girls are much more similar than different in math performance, even when considering studies that found the largest gender differences. In addition, even when we find there are differences, it is important to remember they are in the averages of the two groups and are not deterministic of any individual student’s performance.

Interestingly, we often see larger gender difference in other math-related outcomes compared with overall performance. Girls tend to have less positive math attitudes: They have higher levels of math anxiety and lower levels of confidence in their math skills. This means even when girls show similar performance levels to boys, they are often less sure of themselves. In addition, we see larger gender differences in spatial skills, the way students approach solving math problems and math-intensive career choices. Therefore, these math-related skills and attitudes may be more useful areas for researchers to investigate related to gender and math.

Stanford looked at 260 million test scores in more than 10,000 school districts in the United States between 2008 and 2015. Researchers found:

– The math gap between genders has narrowed over the years.

– Boys outperform girls in math only slightly.

– Boys outperform girls in math in wealthy, suburban school districts.

– Girls outperform boys in math in low-income districts only slightly.

– Girls excel in English across all economic groups.

– Wealth likely plays a role in creating gender gaps.

The examples of researches and studies cited above imply that the gender-based gap is only made by the environment rather than the X and Y chromosomes. What is needed at this point is to alter our mindset and discuss how perceived inequality can be eliminated from our society. The first step should be to stop drilling it into the female psyche that they cannot be good with numbers. In fact, parents need to support their girl child and make them believe that math is not rocket science.


6 Replies to “Are boys actually better in math?”

  1. I am so happy to read this Dan. Well Done! It sounds like you are settling in to your new school.
    You are right, you cannot excel at everything, but if you are good at maths and science you have a head start, as many professions require these subjects.
    My girls are grown up and working, but have university degrees. As you say, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but is worth it, to give yourself the best opportunities later on.
    Keep up the good work! 🙂

  2. I’m really good with math (not showing off), I just got 95% five times for homework and I really like math, science, and language arts a lot. My parents are always proud of me. But I cannot do social studies (I’m horrible at it), people have weaknesses and no one is perfect. You just have to believe. I am a 13 year old in 9th grade and trust me, it took me a while to get here and it took a lot of determination. I do not know how old your daughters are, but you might want to show them this comment and it might help them.

  3. Very interesting 🙂
    Often a girl is told she cannot do maths, or that maths is difficult and so she starts out with a negative attitude.
    If given the opportunity, such as in an all-girls school, girls often do much better at maths and also because they don’t have to ‘play dumb’ so the boys can get better marks.
    My Dad was a maths teacher, so I grew up loving numbers and maths and science. I passed this on to both my daughters too.
    As to girls being better than boys at English, this actually seems to be the case, from an early age, where girls have a larger vocabulary.
    All the matters really is that we each find something we like and are good at – like you and science. 🙂

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