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Yes, we knew this: no gender differences in maths

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This news is truly flashy enough to get exposure in Time magazine:

Rural India might not seem a likely place to study the roots of gender differences in math performance. [And why not? If one may be allowed to interrupt the magisterial words of Time magazine] But a new study of two tribes living in the northeast of the country offers intriguing evidence that biology alone does not determine women’s math aptitude (or lack thereof, as former Harvard President Lawrence Summers once infamously suggested) and that culture has a lot to do with the differences between the genders.

Prior research has found that fewer than 10% of tenured math professors are women at Phd-granting institutions (only 7% are full professors at top 100 universities)*, so understanding the reasons for the disparity could help address it. The new study of members of the Khasi and Karbi tribes of India suggests that the influence of culture can virtually eliminate at least some of the gender differences.

Researchers led by Moshe Hoffman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego, studied villagers from both tribes. Genetically, the Khasi and Karbi are highly similar: the groups only became separate a few hundred years ago and some intermarriage continues. Both groups are also subsistence farmers, living mainly on rice in a hilly region that gets world-record levels of rainfall.

Hoffman and his colleagues studied 1,279 people, from four Khasi and four Karbi villages, paying them for their time to test their ability to solve block puzzles. Each block was divided into four parts and tests were scored by how fast people could accurately assemble the pictures painted on them. The puzzles were designed to test participants’ spatial abilities, which are linked to math and science aptitude.

Among the male-dominated Karbi, men were 36% faster at solving the block puzzles than women. But about a third of the overall difference was attributable to the greater education received by the boys among the Karbi, and the rest seemed to be linked to other cultural differences.

Among the Khasi, the difference between men and women was so small that it was not statistically significant. “This study tells us that culture does matter,” says Hoffman. “What makes [it] unique is that we can control for biology.”

If you have a subscription you might want to explore the article in Proceedings of the (US) National Academy of Sciences.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

August 31, 2011 at 4:37 am

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