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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: June 2012

5 - Cognitive Contributions to Sex Differences in Math Performance


This chapter offers an explanation, or a set of explanations, for how sex differences in cognitive abilities result in sex differences in math performance, and particularly differences in performance on high-level math tests. By high-level math tests, we mean tests such as the SAT-M, ACT-M, or GRE-M that are commonly used for competitive selection decisions. Our chapter is not about sex differences in math in general. Therefore, there are interesting differences between males and females in areas such as math self-concept, math anxiety, and so on that we do not discuss. We make this distinction because the general area of sex differences in mathematics is large, unwieldy, contradictory, and ultimately, in our opinion, not explainable by a common set of factors. We do, however, briefly examine some of the areas encompassed under the general topic of sex differences in mathematics because research in those areas serves to constrain explanations for sex differences in high-level math test performance. We now examine some of those areas of research.


Reviews of the literature examining sex differences in math grades indicate that girls generally receive better grades than boys, especially after junior high school (Dwyer & Johnson, 1997; Kimball, 1989). Kimball concluded that junior high and high school girls received better grades than their male peers in specific courses and had a higher overall math grade point average.

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