Gender differences in maths ability don’t add up, Leuven study finds


Researchers at the University of Leuven’s education department have pinpointed when girls begin to fall behind in maths

‘Lower expectations’ lead to lower scores

More boys than girls choose to study science and technology subjects at school, but this is not because they are fundamentally better at maths, according to a study conducted by the University of Leuven (KU Leuven). Between the ages of four and five, at least, there are no significant gender differences in mathematical ability.

The issue of why more boys than girls go on to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics the Stem subjects) has concerned policymakers for some time. Since maths underpins all the Stem subjects, one focus has been an apparent difference in mathematical abilities between boys and girls, with test results showing a significant gender divide after six years in school.

But how far back does this difference go? In order to answer that question, a research team at KU Leuven set up a study involving 410 children aged between four and five, from 17 schools across the region. Each child was asked to solve eight mathematical tests, such as counting objects, naming and organising numbers and solving simple sums.


“The results show that children in the second year of school already have strong mathematical skills,” said educational neuroscience professor Bert De Smedt, who oversaw the research. “Individually, there are significant differences, but for none of the eight tasks we researched is there a difference between boys and girls. The average scores are very close together.”

This suggests that the difference is down to other factors, perhaps the stereotypes people have about girls’ interest or ability in maths. “Unconsciously, these assumptions can lead to lower expectations regarding girls,” De Smedt explained. “We must deal more consciously with these stereotypes, both in school and at home. Since boys and girls have just as much talent for mathematics, their interest in the subject should be stimulated equally.”

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