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Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2007 Aug;8(1):1-51. doi: 10.1111/j.1529-1006.2007.00032.x. Epub 2007 Aug 1.

The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics.

Author information

1
Claremont McKenna College diane.halpern@cmc.edu.
2
Vanderbilt University.
3
University of Missouri.
4
University of Pennsylvania.
5
University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Abstract

Amid ongoing public speculation about the reasons for sex differences in careers in science and mathematics, we present a consensus statement that is based on the best available scientific evidence. Sex differences in science and math achievement and ability are smaller for the mid-range of the abilities distribution than they are for those with the highest levels of achievement and ability. Males are more variable on most measures of quantitative and visuospatial ability, which necessarily results in more males at both high- and low-ability extremes; the reasons why males are often more variable remain elusive. Successful careers in math and science require many types of cognitive abilities. Females tend to excel in verbal abilities, with large differences between females and males found when assessments include writing samples. High-level achievement in science and math requires the ability to communicate effectively and comprehend abstract ideas, so the female advantage in writing should be helpful in all academic domains. Males outperform females on most measures of visuospatial abilities, which have been implicated as contributing to sex differences on standardized exams in mathematics and science. An evolutionary account of sex differences in mathematics and science supports the conclusion that, although sex differences in math and science performance have not directly evolved, they could be indirectly related to differences in interests and specific brain and cognitive systems. We review the brain basis for sex differences in science and mathematics, describe consistent effects, and identify numerous possible correlates. Experience alters brain structures and functioning, so causal statements about brain differences and success in math and science are circular. A wide range of sociocultural forces contribute to sex differences in mathematics and science achievement and ability-including the effects of family, neighborhood, peer, and school influences; training and experience; and cultural practices. We conclude that early experience, biological factors, educational policy, and cultural context affect the number of women and men who pursue advanced study in science and math and that these effects add and interact in complex ways. There are no single or simple answers to the complex questions about sex differences in science and mathematics.

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