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

11 - The Gender Gap in Mathematics: Merely a Step Function?



The gender gap in mathematics and science has been an issue of national concern since the mid-1970s because it is a matter of educational equity with far-reaching consequences for the lives of women and their families. As world economies rely increasingly on science and technological innovation, women's limited participation in mathematics and science can adversely affect their employment and economic opportunities.

To conceptualize the relationship between gender and mathematics performance, I turn to the field of mathematics and its terminology. At first glance, the mathematics gender gap appears to be like a mere step function, with male students performing better than females. However, for social scientists, this relationship is better expressed by a complex mathematics equation that includes a constellation of social, psychological, and biological factors. Research evidence from national and cross-national studies showing that the gender gap in mathematics has narrowed over the years and varies across countries, supports social scientists' assertion that this gender gap is rooted in a complex array of social-environmental factors (American Association of University Women [AAUW], 1998; Baker & Jones, 1993; Friedman, 1989; Oakes, 1990). This chapter reviews the contributions that sociological research has made toward understanding the complexity of the gender gap in mathematics.

In a literature review that put together decades of relevant sociological research, Oakes (1990) identified that the gender gap in mathematics test performance involves differences in three domains: opportunity, achievement, and choice.

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