Although the question of whether there is a gender difference in math seems like a simple one, the answer is complicated. Overall there are only small differences in boys’ and girls’ math performance; those differences depend on the age and skill level of the student, what type of math they are attempting and how big of a dissimilarity is needed to say that boys’ and girls’ math performance is truly different.
In preschool and elementary school boys and girls generally perform similarly on math tests. Later in school, in high school and college, more consistent differences start to emerge. In addition, gender differences are often larger among higher-performing students but not necessarily for lower- or average-performing ones. Within this specific group of higher-performing math students, boys tend to perform better. Similarly, when studies do find gender differences among elementary school children, they find these start to appear for higher-performing students earlier in schooling than they do for lower- and average-performing ones.
Whether a gender difference is found also depends on what type of math the kids are doing. In general, boys tend to outperform girls on tests that are less related to what is taught in schools (like the SAT math test, for example) whereas there tend to be minimal gender differences on statewide standards-based math tests, which are more tied to what’s taught in schools. When it comes to grades in school, which are even more closely tied to the curriculum, girls often outperform boys. A recent meta-analysis of research on the performance of students from elementary age through adulthood found boys tend to outperform girls in more complex areas of math such as those involving more advanced problem-solving. In contrast, there are no differences—and, in some cases, an advantage for girls—on more basic numerical skills and on math problems that have a set procedure for solving them.
Two of the factors above, age and the type of math, can impact research results at the same time. For example, two recent studies (here and here) found no gender differences in basic numerical skills in infants and children. This could be partially explained by the young age of the sample, and also because there are often few gender differences found in basic numerical skills.
Although there are differences in math performance between girls and boys of both high school and college age, and when doing certain typesof math, these studies find only a small gender difference in math performance. The mean performance scores for boys and girls are about 0.1 to 0.3 standard deviations apart from one another—very small differences and with a lot of overlap between boys’ and girls’ math skills. (Check out this visualization to see two groups that show a 0.2 standard deviation difference.) Thus, boys and girls are much more similar than different in math performance, even when considering studies that found the largest gender differences. In addition, even when we find there are differences, it is important to remember they are in the averages of the two groups and are not deterministic of any individual student’s performance.
Interestingly, we often see larger gender difference in other math-related outcomes compared with overall performance. Girls tend to have less positive math attitudes: They have higher levels of math anxiety and lower levels of confidence in their math skills. This means even when girls show similar performance levels to boys, they are often less sure of themselves. In addition, we see larger gender differences in spatial skills, the way students approach solving math problems and math-intensive career choices. Considered along with the larger gender differences seen among higher-performing math students, who are the most likely to pursue a math-intensive career, varying spatial skills and problem-solving approaches, among other factors, may help us understand why boys go on to pursue math-intensive career choices more frequently than girls do. Therefore, these math-related skills and attitudes may be more useful areas for researchers to investigate related to gender and math.