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Here’s an old chestnut: boys are better at mathematics than girls. We have probably all heard it repeated a hundred times. Fortunately, it’s just plain wrong and statistics prove it.

The Myth:

Scientists have spent decades researching whether a mathematical ability is because of biological or social factors. While girls have long done better at mathematics in class, some studies have suggested that they are outperformed when it comes to test results suggesting that something other than aptitude is responsible. The myth that males are somehow better with figures is old and as well as disproving it, recent research has probably gone some way to explaining where it originated from.

The Research:

Researchers have found that where women receive the same access to education as men, the “gender gap” experienced in mathematics and other tests no longer appears. That suggests that historic and cultural attitudes – where women do not have the same access to schooling as their male counterparts – are as much a factor as real results. That finding appears to be confirmed by global data which shows that in countries where girls do worse than boys at mathematics, their access to mathematics education is more restricted.

The long-term consequences of the mathematics myth are hard to quantify but some researchers say that it could be one of the reasons why the scientific and technology sectors are still dominated by men.

In one study by Washington State University, researchers determined that while the difference in mathematics results was negligible, men seem to believe that they have better mathematics abilities than they actually do while women are more realistic. In other words – men just think they are better and are more likely to pursue careers in science or technology as a result of this misconception.

It’s all about the country:

In country after country, researchers have repeatedly found that when the access to education is the same, the differences in mathematics results between boys and girls are negligible. The results are most pronounced in Scandinavian societies where there are the fewest cultural barriers to girls – in these countries, there is virtually no difference in results, indeed the only noticeable difference is that girls often outperform boys in mathematics.

What does this mean for your children?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has suggested that tackling gender disparities and perceptions could boost performance at school, assigning blame on low expectations among parents and teachers as well as low self confidence among girls. It urged both parents and school staff to to encourage girls to consider careers in subjects that are mathematics ‘heavy’ like engineering and technology.

Alun Jones, the head of the Girls’ School Association, told the Guardian earlier this year that there was no reason girls couldn’t do as well as boys in mathematics if they were encouraged to do so in the right environment. He added: “We’re dealing with centuries of gender bias and what people and parents think and say, often without realising it, does influence children’s expectations of themselves.”