Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Smartest Girls Find Gender Gap in Math, Science

• July 22, 2010 • 5:00 AM

At the highest levels of academic ability among seventh-grade students, boys still outnumber girls by more than 3-to-1 in math and science, a study finds.

The gender gap in math and science between the most talented seventh-grade boys and girls is much smaller today than it was 30 years ago, but there’s still a big disparity, and it does not appear to be going away, a team of researchers at Duke University has found.

In a new study for the journal Intelligence, the team examined 30 years of test data from 1.6 million smart students, the top 5 percent of seventh-graders in 16 states. They focused on the most gifted students, the top 0.01 percent who in seventh grade were able to score 700 or above on SAT math section or the equivalent on the ACT in math. That’s a level of performance that even most college-hopeful high school juniors do not achieve.

At these highest levels of math ability, the researchers found, seventh-grade boys outnumbered girls by 4-to-1 on the SAT and 3-to-1 on the ACT. That’s a big improvement from the early 1980s, when the ratio for top-scoring math students was 13 boys to every girl, a troubling gap identified back then by other researchers and confirmed again by the Duke team. But the new study shows that today’s math gender gap among the most gifted students has been in place for two decades.

In addition, the Duke team found the ratio of high-scoring boys to girls on the ACT test for scientific reasoning is 3-1 — another gender gap that has held steady for two decades. Remarkably, 18 boys scored a perfect score on that test between 1990 and 2010, compared to only one girl. The SAT and ACT tests are widely used by American colleges to help determine admissions.

The new findings run counter to previous studies (here and here) suggesting that gender differences in math and science among the best students no longer existed or were meaningful. The advantage that boys have in scientific reasoning may result from more familiarity with and interest in science, the Duke researchers said, adding, “It is possible that visits to science museums and extracurricular science classes are more common among boys and this may partly explain these results.”

Highly gifted girls performed better than highly gifted boys on SAT tests for writing and verbal reasoning, obtaining scores of 700 or above, but the difference was small, the study found.

A team of four researchers from the Duke Talent Identification Program conducted the study. Since 1981, the program has held an annual talent search, giving the SAT and ACT to seventh-graders to assess their academic ability. Duke offers summer courses, independent study, study abroad and financial aid to gifted students to accelerate their education.

According to the new study, the pre-adolescent gender gap in math and science shows up most sharply at the highest levels of performance. The disparity there may help explain why women are still underrepresented today in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, the authors said. It’s a gap that persists, they said, even though many girls today are encouraged to study math and science, and even though there are role models among women professionals and Nobel Prize winners in the field.

“It’s apparent that there are still differences in ability levels due to gender, even as women have occupied more STEM jobs in the last 30 years,” said Jonathan Wai, the lead Duke researcher. “We will continue our research, but for now it seems that ability is still a factor in the equation.”

Previous studies have suggested that women are more drawn to people and men are more drawn to things, and that difference could explain the paucity of women in the fields of science and engineering. The Duke researchers agree that preferences are likely important, and they don’t rule out the continued impact of biases and barriers. Why ability still seems to play a role, they don’t know.

“Sex differences favoring males in math ability and science reasoning may have declined from the early 1980s to present, possibly in response to fewer barriers, more encouragement and role models provided to females, but the fact that they are still substantial and have remained relatively stable for two decades may at least partly account for the dearth of women in STEM careers …” the authors conclude.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.