Paola Sapienza Photo
© Nathan Mandell
Paola Sapienza: inequality adds up to math gender gap
School finance expert finds that social equality leads to better
math skills for women
gender gap in math perceived to exist between girls and boys
has long been contested. New research published in the journal
Science adds clarity to the debate and demonstrates
that girls perform better in mathematics in more gender-equal
societies — in some cases besting male peers.
research, led in part by Kellogg School Associate Professor
of Finance Paola
Sapienza, sought to address the issue of whether social
and cultural factors influence women's success in math and
science. Sapienza and her colleagues Luigi Guiso (Instituto
Universitario Europeo) and Ferdinando Monte and Luigi Zingales
(University of Chicago), investigated whether a global gender
gap exists in math so that they could understand the relative
importance of biology and culture on the development of basic
mental attributes that are valuable for conducting math and
so-called gender gap in math skills seems to be at least partially
correlated to environmental factors," Sapienza said.
"The gap doesn't exist in countries in which men and
women have access to similar resources and opportunities."
search of bridges to span the math gender gap, Sapienza and
her colleagues analyzed data from more than 276,000 children
in 40 countries. The large number of subjects and broad range
of social systems represented were keys to the study's validity.
Each child took the 2003 Organisation for Economic Co-operation
and Development Programme for International Student Assessment
(PISA), a standardized assessment of math, reading, science
and problem-solving ability.
on the PISA analysis, Sapienza and her co-researchers determined
that while the global pattern shows boys tended to outperform
girls in math (on average, girls score 10.5 points lower than
boys), this advantage was not always the case. In a few countries,
including Iceland, Sweden and Norway, girls scored as well
as boys or better.
and colleagues examined social features that might explain
the variance across countries. The scholars used four tools
to measure how well women were integrated into each society
compared with men. These tools were the 2006 Gender Gap Index
(GGI) developed by the World Economic Forum (WEF); the World
Values Survey; the percentage of women aged 15 or older who
are eligible to work in each country's labor force; and the
WEF political empowerment index, which measures the representation
of women in government.
team found that, in more gender-equal societies, the gender
gap in math disappears. For example, the math gender gap almost
disappeared in Sweden (GGI = 0.81), while girls scored 23
points below boys in math in Turkey (GGI = 0.59). Not only
did average girls' scores improve as equality improved, but
the number of girls reaching the highest levels of performance
and science rates for girls in the U.S., which ranks 23rd
on the GCI scale with a score of 0.7, fell in the middle of
the pack. On average, U.S. girls score almost 10 points lower
than U.S. boys in mathematics, which is around the average
for all countries analyzed in the study.
research also found a striking gender gap in reading skills.
In every country girls perform better than boys in reading.
In more gender-equal societies, the girls' advantage in reading
over boys increases further. On average, girls have reading
scores that are 32.7 points higher than those of boys (6.6
percent higher than the mean average score for boys). In Turkey,
this amounts to 25.1 points higher and in Iceland, girls score
61.0 points higher.
Sapienza, "Our research indicates that in more gender-equal
societies, girls will gain an absolute advantage relative
INFORMATION : The full study is published in the May
30, 2008, issue of Science. Additional details about
this study is also available at Kellogg Insight, the
Kellogg School's Web-based research portal: