Where You Come From Matters

math game, math app, math games, math weakness, women in math, girls and math, gender gap index, ggi, gender in math, equality in educationAs studies have consistently shown, girls are just as able as boys when it comes down to math.  However, this is neither reflected in test results nor in the degrees or careers that women ultimately pursue. Many academics are baffled about why this is the case. One group of researchers decided to investigate and found that where you come from makes a big difference.

The researchers examined the math scores of 11 500, 15-year-old students who lived in nine countries, whose varied ancestry belonged to 35 countries. They then studied the Gender Gap Index (GGI) in the countries of origin.

“These boys and girls grew up and live in the same country, but their parents came from elsewhere. So, differences in how well girls perform compared to boys, given that they are in the same environment and exposed to the same institutions, is likely to be the result of parents (or their social network) transmitting values about gender equality to their kids.” Almudena Sevilla, co-author and Professor of Labour Economics at Queen Mary University of London, said.

Sevilla and her colleagues found that females whose origin stemmed from countries with a lower gender gap tended to better at math. The results were very significant. A standard deviation towards gender equality led to an increase of 7.47 points in the performance of girls relative to boys. This is equivalent to about 1.5 months of schooling.

There have been earlier studies that have made a similar link between societal factors and the math gender gap. “This earlier work was unable to establish whether the performance gap is due to girls expecting lower returns from maths in terms of the labour market and the education system, or whether it’s due to a message that maths is essentially not for girls. The former is about institutions, while the latter is about values. Our research looks specifically at values like gender equality, and we’ve found that yes, values and views about women really do matter in this context,” another author said.

So what does it mean to have ancestors from a country where gender equality is poor? The authors use Turkey as an example, which has a score of 0.58 on the Global Gender Index. “Our data show that if Turkey had a higher rate of gender equality closer to the average country of ancestry in our sample (0.69), then the maths gender gap between boys and girls of Turkish ancestry would disappear,” an author of the study said.

The practical implications of this research are a bit difficult to understand. Should teachers be paying more attention to girls who are from a country with a low global gender index? Should they speak to parents to ensure that their expectations of their daughters are high? The authors, who come from economic backgrounds, merely highlight the importance of policies in certain countries which reduce the importance of a woman’s role in society and suggest that changing these policies may be pivotal in reducing the math gender gap. Ultimately, a lower math gender gap will lead to more women in STEM careers, with salaries that will match those of their male counterparts.  

Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of two.  She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.