New Research Is Breaking The Glass Stereotype That Boys Are Better Than Girls In Math

Two girls working at a chalkboard.

By Erika Krull, MS, LMHP

Who says girls can’t keep pace with boys in math? One study by Joseph Price, a Brigham Young economist, leaves that stereotype in the dust.

People have long thought that boys had a natural advantage over girls in math, particularly when doing timed competition. It turns out the picture looks much different when girls are given the chance to stick with it for a while.

Boys seem to get the jump on girls when competition begins. If the event is short like a quiz, girls may not perform as well. But when the competition endures for longer and the students are told it’s not a race, girls do as well as boys. In some cases, girls can outperform boys in longer competitions.[1]

Price said, “Competitions can be a really effective way to encourage student effort. It has been really exciting to see just how much the kids focus and work really hard during our competitions.” While teachers may be pleased to see so much engagement from their students, Price knows some teachers have concerns.

“I imagine that many teachers might shy away from having competitions for fear that girls won’t enjoy the experience or do well,” Price said. But it’s clear that once students get a little experience with the competitions, the results are encouraging for boys and girls.

So what else can math teachers do to equalize the learning opportunities for boys and girls? Price suggests getting more girls involved in both math competitions and chess tournaments. Participation in these classic contests has been dominated by boys for decades.

Since girls clearly have the capability, it may be a matter of drawing more girls to the competitions themselves. Teachers will have to work against social stereotypes and misperceptions girls may have about their math own abilities.

Girls are often assumed to have a stronger sense of math anxiety than boys. While the reasons aren’t clear, one study by the Department of Learning Disabilities at the University of Haifa, Israel, appears to confirm this.[2]

According to the study’s results, girls tend to associate negative meaning with simple math problems while boys assign positive meaning. However, they also state that math anxiety research is inconclusive, and more study with environmental factors needs to be done.[2]

Even though girls have more opportunities to learn math and science than ever before, many do not envision themselves as having success with these subjects. Parents and teachers need to encourage girls to persevere and see their skills grow.

Price sees strong potential with chess tournaments and math competitions. He feels this is an important area for future research. If these events are set up in a way that neutralizes the small advantage boys tend to have near the beginning of competition, girls perceptions about math could really change.

Formal chess tournaments have time limits for each player as they take a turn. However, these limits could be stretched to encourage greater participation and put less emphasis on speed. Experience and broad participation can keep chess competition fun.

Why do boys have the advantage with single round math competition? That question has yet to be answered. The more important discovery lies in how educators and parents can keep girls feeling confident about their abilities in math.

The results of Price’s study are eye-opening to say the least. The old stereotype about boys being better at math is cracking at the seams. Let’s hope it doesn’t take long for girls to break it apart completely.


  1. Christopher Cotton, Frank McIntyre, Joseph Price. Gender differences in repeated competition: Evidence from school math contests. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Volume 86, February 2013, Pages 52-66, ISSN 0167-2681, 10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.029.
  2. Rubinsten O, Bialik N and Solar Y (2012). Exploring the relationship between math anxiety and gender through implicit measurement. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 6:279. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00279.

Erika Krull is a licensed mental health counselor from Nebraska. She has also been a freelance writer since 2006, writing primarily about mental health and parenting topics. She currently works part-time at a psychiatric hospital, and lives with her husband and three daughters.

Posted by CJ Newton, MA, Editor on February 26, 2013 at 06:00 AM

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