gender

Myths about gender and math performance

January, 2012

Two new reviews debunk several theories for the reasons for gender gaps in math performance.

Is there, or is there not, a gender gap in mathematics performance? And if there is, is it biological or cultural?

Although the presence of a gender gap in the U.S. tends to be regarded as an obvious truth, evidence is rather more equivocal. One meta-analysis of studies published between 1990 and 2007, for example, found no gender differences in mean performance and nearly equal variability within each gender. Another meta-analysis, using 30 years of SAT and ACT scores, found a very large 13:1 ratio of middle school boys to girls at the highest levels of performance in the early 1980s, which declined to around 4:1 by 1991, where it has remained. A large longitudinal study found that males were doing better in math, across all socioeconomic classes, by the 3rd grade, with the ratio of boys to girls in the top 5% rising to 3:1 by 5th grade.

Regardless of the extent of any gender differences in the U.S., the more fundamental question is whether such differences are biological or cultural. The historical changes mentioned above certainly point to a large cultural component. Happily, because so many more countries now participate in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA), much better data is now available to answer this question. In 2007, for example, 4th graders from 38 countries and 8th graders from 52 countries participated in TIMSS. In 2009, 65 countries participated in PISA.

So what does all this new data reveal about the gender gap? Overall, there was no significant gender gap in the 2003 and 2007 TIMSS, with the exception of the 2007 8th graders, where girls outperformed boys.

There were, of course, significant gender gaps on a country basis. Researchers looked at several theories for what might underlie these.

Contradicting one theory, gender gaps did not correlate reliably with gender equity. In fact, both boys and girls tended to do better in math when raised in countries where females have better equality. The primary contributor to this appears to be women’s income and rates of participation in the work force. This is in keeping with the idea that maternal education and employment opportunities have benefits for their children’s learning regardless of gender.

The researchers also looked at the more specific hypothesis put forward by Steven Levitt, that gender inequity doesn’t hurt girls' math performance in Muslim countries, where most students attend single-sex schools. This theory was not borne out by the evidence. There was no consistent link between school type and math performance across countries.

However, math performance in the 29 wealthier countries could be predicted to a very high degree by three factors: economic participation and opportunity; GDP per capita; membership of one of three clusters — Middle Eastern (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia); East Asian (Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan); rest (Russia, Hungary, Czech Republic, England, Canada, US, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Scotland, Cyprus, Italy, Malta, Israel, Spain, Lithuania, Malaysia, Slovenia, Dubai). The Middle Eastern cluster scored lowest (note the exception of Dubai), and the East Asian the highest. While there are many cultural factors differentiating these clusters, it’s interesting to note that countries’ average performance tended to be higher when students attribute less importance to mastering math.

The investigators also looked at the male variability hypothesis — the idea that males are more variable in their performance, and their predominance at the top is balanced by their predominance at the bottom. The study found however that greater male variation in math achievement varies widely across countries, and is not found at all in some countries.

In sum, the cross-country variability in performance in regard to gender indicates that the most likely cause of any differences lies in country-specific social factors. These could include perception of abilities as fixed vs malleable, attitude toward math, gender beliefs.

Stereotype threat

A popular theory of women’s underachievement in math concerns stereotype threat (first proposed by Spencer, Steele, and Quinn in a 1999 paper). I have reported on this on several occasions. However, a recent review of this research claims that many of the studies were flawed in their methodology and statistical analysis.

Of the 141 studies that cited the original article and related to mathematics, only 23 met the criteria needed (in the reviewers’ opinion) to replicate the original study:

  • Both genders tested
  • Math test used
  • Subjects recruited regardless of preexisting beliefs about gender stereotypes
  • Subjects randomly assigned to experimental conditions

Of these 23, three involved younger participants (< 18 years) and were excluded. Of the remaining 20 studies, only 11 (55%) replicated the original effect (a significant interaction between gender and stereotype threat, and women performing significantly worse in the threat condition than in the threat condition compared to men).

Moreover, half the studies confounded the results by statistically adjusting preexisting math scores. That is, the researchers tried to adjust for any preexisting differences in math performance by using a previous math assessment measure such as SAT score to ‘tweak’ the baseline score. This practice has been the subject of some debate, and the reviewers come out firmly against it, arguing that “an important assumption of a covariate analysis is that the groups do not differ on the covariate. But that group difference is exactly what stereotype threat theory tries to explain!” Note, too, that the original study didn’t make such an adjustment.

So what happens if we exclude those studies that confounded the results? That leaves ten studies, of which only three found an effect (and one of these found the effect only in a subset of the math test). In other words, overwhelmingly, it was the studies that adjusted the scores that found an effect (8/10), while those that didn’t adjust them didn’t find the effect (7/10).

The power of the adjustment in producing the effect was confirmed in a meta-analysis.

Now these researchers aren’t saying that stereotype threat doesn’t exist, or that it doesn’t have an effect on women in this domain. Their point is that the size of the effect, and the evidence for the effect, has come to be regarded as greater and more robust than the research warrants.

At a practical level, this may have led to too much emphasis on tackling this problem at the expense of investigating other possible causes and designing other useful interventions.

Reference: 

Kane, J. M., & Mertz, J. E. (2012). Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance. Notices of the AMS, 59(1), 10-21.

[2698] Stoet, G., & Geary D. C.
(2012).  Can stereotype threat explain the gender gap in mathematics performance and achievement?.
Review of General Psychology;Review of General Psychology. No Pagination Specified - No Pagination Specified.

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Deep male voice helps women remember

November, 2011

It seems that what is said by deeper male voices is remembered better by heterosexual women, while memory is impaired for higher male voices. Pitch didn’t affect the memorability of female voices.

I had to report on this quirky little study, because a few years ago I discovered Leonard Cohen’s gravelly voice and then just a few weeks ago had it trumped by Tom Waits — I adore these deep gravelly voices, but couldn’t say why. Now a study shows that woman are not only sensitive to male voice pitch, but this affects their memory.

In the first experiment, 45 heterosexual women were shown images of objects while listening to the name of the object spoken either by a man or woman. The pitch of the voice was manipulated to be high or low. After spending five minutes on a Sudoku puzzle, participants were asked to choose which of two similar but not identical versions of the object was the one they had seen earlier. After the memory test, participants were tested on their voice preferences.

Women strongly preferred the low pitch male voice and remembered objects more accurately when they have been introduced by the deeper male voice than the higher male voice (mean score for object recognition was 84.7% vs 77.8%). There was no significant difference in memory relating to pitch for the female voices (83.9% vs 81.7% — note that these are not significantly different from the score for the deeper male voice).

So is it that memory is enhanced for deeper male voices, or that it is impaired for higher male voices (performance on the female voices suggests the latter)? Or are both factors at play? To sort this out, the second experiment, involving a new set of 46 women, included unmanipulated male and female voices.

Once again, women were unaffected by the different variations of female voices. However, male voices produced a clear linear effect, with the unmanipulated male voices squarely in the middle of the deeper and higher versions. It appears, then, that both factors are at play: deepening a male voice enhances its memorability, while raising it impairs its memorability.

It’s thought that deeper voices are associated with more desirable traits for long-term male partners. Having a better memory for specific encounters with desirable men would allow women to compare and evaluate men according to how they might behave in different relationship contexts.

The voices used were supplied by four young adult men and four young adult women. Pitch was altered through software manipulation. Participants were told that the purpose of the experiment was to study sociosexual orientation and object preference. Contraceptive pill usage did not affect the women’s responses.

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Another challenge to idea that men are better at spatial thinking

October, 2011

A cross-cultural study finds a significant gender difference on a simple puzzle problem for one culture but no gender difference for another. The difference was only partly explained by education.

Here’s an intriguing approach to the long-standing debate about gender differences in spatial thinking. The study involved 1,279 adults from two cultural groups in India. One of these groups was patrilineal, the other matrilineal. The volunteers were given a wooden puzzle to assemble as quickly as they could.

Within the patrilineal group, men were on average 36% faster than women. Within the matrilineal group, however, there was no difference between the genders.

I have previously reported on studies showing how small amounts of spatial training can close the gap in spatial abilities between the genders. It has been argued that in our culture, males are directed toward spatial activities (construction such as Lego; later, video games) more than females are.

In this case, the puzzle was very simple. However, general education was clearly one factor mediating this gender difference. In the patrilineal group, males had an average 3.67 more years of education, while in the matrilineal group, men and women had the same amount of education. When education was included in the statistical analysis, a good part of the difference between the groups was accounted for — but not all.

While we can only speculate about the remaining cause, it is interesting to note that, among the patrilineal group, the gender gap was decidedly smaller among those who lived in households not wholly owned by males (in the matrilineal group, men are not allowed to own property, so this comparison cannot be made).

It is also interesting to note that the men in the matrilineal group were faster than the men in the patrilineal group. This is not a function of education differences, because education in the matrilineal group was slightly less than that of males in the patrilineal group.

None of the participants had experience with puzzle solving, and both groups had similar backgrounds, being closely genetically related and living in villages geographically close. Participants came from eight villages: four patrilineal and four matrilineal.

Reference: 

[2519] Hoffman, M., Gneezy U., & List J. A.
(2011).  Nurture affects gender differences in spatial abilities.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108(36), 14786 - 14788.

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Young binge drinkers less able to learn new verbal information

July, 2011

Binge drinking university students, regardless of gender, performed more poorly on tests of verbal memory, but not on a test of visual memory.

Following animal research indicating that binge drinking damages the hippocampus, and other research showing that this learning and memory center is still developing during adolescence, a new study has investigated the effects of binge drinking on learning in university students. The study, involving 122 Spanish university students (aged 18-20), of whom half engaged in binge drinking, found a clear association between binge drinking and a lower ability to learn new verbal information.

Specifically, binge drinkers were more affected by interference in the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test, and remembered fewer words; they also performed worse on the Weschler Memory Scale-3rd ed. (WMS-III) Logical Memory subtest, both on immediate and delayed recall. However, there were no differences between the two groups on the WMS-III Family Pictures subtest (measuring visual declarative memory).

These results persisted even after controlling for other possible confounding variables such as intellectual levels, history of neurological or psychopathological disorders, other drug use, or family history of alcoholism.

The genders were evenly represented in both groups. Interestingly, and in contradiction of some other research, women were not found to be more vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of binge drinking.

Reference: 

[2298] Parada, M., Corral M., Caamaño‐Isorna F., Mota N., Crego A., Holguín S R., et al.
(Submitted).  Binge Drinking and Declarative Memory in University Students.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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Adverse changes in sleep duration associated with cognitive decline in middle-aged adults

May, 2011

A large long-running study has found that middle-aged adults whose night’s sleep had decreased from 6-8 hours or increased from 7-8 hours performed worse on some cognitive tests.

From the Whitehall II study, data involving 5431 older participants (45-69 at baseline) has revealed a significant effect of midlife sleep changes on later cognitive function. Sleep duration was assessed at one point between 1997 and 1999, and again between 2002 and 2004. A decrease in average night’s sleep from 6, 7, or 8 hours was significantly associated with poorer scores on tests of reasoning, vocabulary, and the MMSE. An increase from 7 or 8 hours (but not from 6 hours) was associated with lower scores on these, as well as on tests of phonemic and semantic fluency. Short-term verbal memory was not significantly affected. The magnitude of these effects was equivalent to a 4–7 year increase in age.

Around 8% of participants showed an increase from 7-8 hours of sleep over the five-year period (7.4% of women; 8.6% of men), while around a quarter of women and 18% of men decreased their sleep amount from 6-8 hours. About 58% of men and 50% of women reported no change in sleep duration during the study period. Some 27% of the participants were women.

The optimal amount of sleep (in terms of highest cognitive performance) was 7 hours for women, closely followed by 6 hours. For men, results were similar at 6, 7 and 8 hours.

Analysis took into account age, sex, education and occupational status. The Whitehall II study is a large, long-running study involving British civil servants. Sleep duration was assessed simply by responses to the question "How many hours of sleep do you have on an average week night?"

A very large Chinese study, involving 28,670 older adults (50-85), of whom some 72% were women, also supports an inverted U-shaped association between sleep duration and cognitive function, with 7-8 hours sleep associated with the highest scores on a delayed word recall test.

I would speculate that this finding of an effect of short-term verbal memory (in contrast to that of the Whitehall study) may reflect a group distinction in terms of education and occupation. The Whitehall study is the more homogenous (mostly white-collar), with participants probably averaging greater cognitive reserve than the community-based Chinese study. The findings suggest that memory is slower to be affected, rather than not affected.

Reference: 

Ferrie JE; Shipley MJ; Akbaraly TN; Marmot MG; Kivimäki M; Singh-Manoux A. Change in sleep duration and cognitive function: findings from the Whitehall II study. SLEEP 2011;34(5):565-573.

Xu L; Jiang CQ; Lam TH; Liu B; Jin YL; Zhu T; Zhang WS; Cheng KK; Thomas GN. Short or long sleep duration is associated with memory impairment in older Chinese: the Guangzhou Biobank Cohort Study. SLEEP 2011;34(5):575-580.

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The importance of the cerebellum for intelligence and age-related cognitive decline

March, 2011

A new study of older adults indicates atrophy of the cerebellum is an important factor in cognitive decline for men, but not women.

Shrinking of the frontal lobe has been associated with age-related cognitive decline for some time. But other brain regions support the work of the frontal lobe. One in particular is the cerebellum. A study involving 228 participants in the Aberdeen Longitudinal Study of Cognitive Ageing (mean age 68.7) has revealed that there is a significant relationship between grey matter volume in the cerebellum and general intelligence in men, but not women.

Additionally, a number of other brain regions showed an association between gray matter and intelligence, in particular Brodmann Area 47, the anterior cingulate, and the superior temporal gyrus. Atrophy in the anterior cingulate has been implicated as an early marker of Alzheimer’s, as has the superior temporal gyrus.

The gender difference was not completely unexpected — previous research has indicated that the cerebellum shrinks proportionally more with age in men than women. More surprising was the fact that there was no significant association between white memory volume and general intelligence. This contrasts with the finding of a study involving older adults aged 79-80. It is speculated that this association may not develop until greater brain atrophy has occurred.

It is also interesting that the study found no significant relationship between frontal lobe volume and general intelligence — although the effect of cerebellar volume is assumed to occur via its role in supporting the frontal lobe.

The cerebellum is thought to play a vital role in three relevant areas: speed of information processing; variability of information processing; development of automaticity through practice.

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Steep cholesterol decline in older women linked to Alzheimer's risk

February, 2011

A long-running study has found cholesterol levels at in mid-life were not linked to later dementia in women, but marked decline in cholesterol level over the study period was.

Research into the link, if any, between cholesterol and dementia, has been somewhat contradictory. A very long-running Swedish study may explain why. The study, involving 1,462 women aged 38-60 in 1968, has found that cholesterol measured in middle or old age showed no link to dementia, but there was a connection between dementia and the rate of decline in cholesterol level. Those women whose cholesterol levels decreased the most from middle to older age were more than twice as likely to develop dementia as those whose cholesterol levels increased or stayed the same (17.5% compared to 8.9%).After 32 years, 161 women had developed dementia.

Later in life, women with slightly higher body mass index, higher levels of cholesterol and higher blood pressure tend to be healthier overall than those whose weight, cholesterol and blood pressure are too low. But it is unclear whether "too low" cholesterol, BMI and blood pressure are risk factors for dementia or simply signs that dementia is developing, for reasons we do not yet understand.

On the other hand, a recent rat study has found that consuming a high cholesterol diet for five months caused memory impairment, cholinergic dysfunction, inflammation, enhanced cortical beta-amyloid and tau and induced microbleedings — all of which is strikingly similar to Alzheimer's pathology. And this finding is consistent with a number of other studies. So it does seem clear that the story of how exactly cholesterol impacts Alzheimer’s is a complex one that we are just beginning to unravel.

In light of other research indicating that the response of men and women to various substances (eg caffeine) may be different, we should also bear in mind that the results of the Swedish study may apply only to women.

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Effects of caffeine vary with quantity and gender

January, 2011

Two recent studies suggest that caffeine is most effective in boosting your energy and alertness in small doses, and more effective for males.

A study involving 80 college students (34 men and 46 women) between the ages of 18 and 40, has found that those given a caffeinated energy drink reported feeling more stimulated and less tired than those given a decaffeinated soda or no drink. However, although reaction times were faster for those consuming caffeine than those given a placebo drink or no drink, reaction times slowed for increasing doses of caffeine, suggesting that smaller amounts of caffeine are more effective.

The three caffeine groups were given caffeine levels of either 1.8 ml/kg, 3.6 ml/kg or 5.4 ml/kg. The computerized "go/no-go" test which tested their reaction times was given half an hour after consuming the drinks.

In another study, 52 children aged 12-17 drank flattened Sprite containing caffeine at four concentrations: 0, 50 mg, 100 mg or 200 mg. Changes in blood pressure and heart rate were then checked every 10 minutes for one hour, at which point they were given a questionnaire and an opportunity to eat all they wanted of certain types of junk food.

Interestingly, there were significant gender differences, with boys drinking high-caffeine Sprite showing greater increases in diastolic blood pressure (the lower number) than boys drinking the low-caffeine Sprite, but girls being unaffected. Boys were also more inclined to report consuming caffeine for energy or “the rush”, than girls were.

Those participants who ingested the most caffeine also ate more high-sugar snack foods in the laboratory, and reported higher protein and fat consumption outside the lab.

Reference: 

[2047] Howard, M. A., & Marczinski C. A.
(2010).  Acute Effects of a Glucose Energy Drink on Behavioral Control.
Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. 18(6), 553 - 561.

[2074] Temple, J. L., Dewey A. M., & Briatico L. N.
(2010).  Effects of Acute Caffeine Administration on Adolescents.
Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. 18(6), 510 - 520.

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Girls less likely to be diagnosed autistic even when symptoms severe

December, 2010

A new study finds that gender and maternal assertiveness are factors in determining whether children with autistic symptoms are diagnosed with ASD.

No one is denying that boys are far more likely to be autistic than girls, but a new study has found that this perception of autism as a male disorder also means that girls are less likely to be diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) even when their symptoms are equally severe.

Another factor affecting diagnosis was maternal age — those diagnosed with ASD were likely to have older mothers. It’s suggested that this may be because older mothers are better at identifying their children's difficulties and have more confidence in bringing concerns to the clinic. This is supported by the finding that first-born children were less likely to be diagnosed with ASD, as were children of mothers with depression.

Ethnic origin, maternal class and mother's marital status did not significantly predict a child either having an ASD diagnosis or displaying severe autistic traits.

The findings were based on an analysis of data from a longitudinal UK cohort study, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).

Reference: 

Russell, G., Steer, C. & Golding, J. 2010. Social and demographic factors that influence the diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorders. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. DOI 10.1007/s00127-010-0294-z.
Full text is available at http://springerlink.com/content/a67371l826m1xl76/fulltext.pdf

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Review makes clear no gender differences in math ability

November, 2010

Analysis of hundreds of studies has found no difference between male and female in terms of their math skills.

A meta-analysis of 242 articles assessing the math skills of 1,286,350 people found no difference between the two sexes. This was confirmed in an analysis of the data from several large surveys of American adolescents (the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress).

Reference: 

[1924] Lindberg, S. M., Hyde J S., Petersen J. L., & Linn M. C.
(2010).  New trends in gender and mathematics performance: A meta-analysis..
Psychological Bulletin. 136(6), 1123 - 1135.

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