The countries where social equality is the lowest are also the countries where the mathematics performance gap between girls and boys is the highest

03.05.2018

Results of research carried out by Thomas Breda, Elyès Jouini, and Clotilde Napp, published on March 16th 2018 in Science, suggest that the gender gap in mathematics is a form of social inequality that can be mitigated if governments are willing to make education systems more inclusive and fair.

The average gender difference in math performance is close to zero in First World countries. Yet, girls remain significantly under-represented in the top 10% of their class. In OECD countries, only 7 girls for 10 boys achieve the highest level of proficiency in mathematics, a level that allows them to go on to a high-level scientific university education and, down the line, to access the highest-level and most remunerated professional positions. The same ratio of 7 girls for 10 boys can be observed in the sciences. When it comes to the Humanities however, the proportion is reversed: 7 boys for 10 girls. Could it be that boys are cognitively predisposed to science and girls cognitively predisposed to the Humanities?

The article published on March 16th in Science by Thomas Breda, Elyès Jouini, and Clotilde Napp, researchers from the Paris School of Economics, Université Paris-Dauphine and the CNRS1, provides us with new insights on the subject.

Using the datasets from 5 successive PISA assessments, conducted between 2003 to 2015 on over 2 million students 15 years of age from some 70 different countries, the authors show that the countries where girls are the most under-represented in the top 10% of their mathematics or science classes are also the countries where social inequality in general is the greatest. This holds for a broad cross-section of countries and for a wide range of non gender-based inequalities such as revenue, access to education, and the quality of school systems. The phenomenon is clearly dynamic: the authors observed that for the period 2003 to 2015, it is in those countries where the gender gap in revenue remained the most stable (i.e. did NOT increased or increased the least) that the math proficiency gap between girls and boys decreased. The findings suggest that gender differences in math performance constitute a type of social inequality that could be mitigated if governments are willing to work to make education systems more inclusive and fair.

1 Thomas Breda is a CNRS researcher with the Paris Jourdain Economics research center (CNRS/EHESS/ENS Paris/Ecole des ponts Paristech/Inra/Université Panthéon-Sorbonne, based at the Paris School of Economics. Elyès Jouini Jouini is Full Professor at Université Paris Dauphine and carries out research at CEREMADE, the Center for Research in Decision Mathematics, a joint CNRS-Université Paris-Dauphine research center in Applied Mathematics. Clotilde Napp, is a CNRS research director working at DRM, the Dauphine Center for Research in Management, a joint CNRS-Université Paris-Dauphine research center.