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Explaining the Gender Gap in Math Test Scores: The Role of Competition

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  • Muriel Niederle
  • Lise Vesterlund

Abstract

The mean and standard deviation in performance on math test scores are only slightly larger for males than for females. Despite minor differences in mean performance, many more boys than girls perform at the right tail of the distribution. This gender gap has been documented for a series of math tests including the AP calculus test, the mathematics SAT, and the quantitative portion of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). The objective of this paper is not to discuss whether the mathematical skills of males and females differ, be it a result of nurture or nature. Rather we argue that the reported test scores do not necessarily match the gender differences in math skills. We will present results that suggest that the evidence of a large gender gap in mathematics performance at high percentiles in part may be explained by the differential manner in which men and women respond to competitive test-taking environments. The effects in mixed-sex settings range from women failing to perform well in competitions, to women shying away from environments in which they have to compete. We find that the response to competition differs for men and women, and in the examined environment, gender difference in competitive performance does not reflect the difference in noncompetitive performance. We argue that the competitive pressures associated with test taking may result in performances that do not reflect those of less-competitive settings. Of particular concern is that the distortion is likely to vary by gender and that it may cause gender differences in performance to be particularly large in mathematics and for the right tail of the performance distribution. Thus the gender gap in math test scores may exaggerate the math advantage of males over females.

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File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.24.2.129
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Bibliographic Info

Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Volume (Year): 24 (2010)
Issue (Month): 2 (Spring)
Pages: 129-44

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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:24:y:2010:i:2:p:129-44

Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.24.2.129
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  1. Wozniak, David, 2009. "Choices About Competition: Differences by gender and hormonal fluctuations, and the role of relative performance feedback," MPRA Paper 21097, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  2. Jeff Grogger & Eric Eide, 1995. "Changes in College Skills and the Rise in the College Wage Premium," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 30(2), pages 280-310.
  3. Scott E. Carrell & Marianne E. Page & James E. West, 2009. "Sex and Science: How Professor Gender Perpetuates the Gender Gap," NBER Working Papers 14959, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Muriel Niederle & Carmit Segal & Lise Vesterlund, 2008. "How Costly is Diversity? Affirmative Action in Light of Gender Differences in Competitiveness," NBER Working Papers 13923, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Datta Gupta, Nabanita & Poulsen, Anders & Villeval, Marie Claire, 2005. "Male and Female Competitive Behavior: Experimental Evidence," IZA Discussion Papers 1833, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  6. Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz & Ilyana Kuziemko, 2006. "The Homecoming of American College Women: The Reversal of the College Gender Gap," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 20(4), pages 133-156, Fall.
  7. Uri Gneezy & Kenneth L. Leonard & John A. List, 2009. "Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence From a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 77(5), pages 1637-1664, 09.
  8. Catherine C. Eckel & Philip J. Grossman, 2008. "Sex and Risk: Experimental Evidence," Development Research Unit Working Paper Series archive-09, Monash University, Department of Economics.
  9. Muriel Niederle & Alexandra H. Yestrumskas, 2008. "Gender Differences in Seeking Challenges: The Role of Institutions," NBER Working Papers 13922, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Carmit Segal, 2006. "Motivation, test scores and economic success," Economics Working Papers 1124, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, revised Oct 2008.
  11. Uri Gneezy & Aldo Rustichini, 2004. "Gender and competition at a young age," Framed Field Experiments 00151, The Field Experiments Website.
  12. Roland G. Fryer, Jr & Steven D. Levitt, 2009. "An Empirical Analysis of the Gender Gap in Mathematics," NBER Working Papers 15430, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  13. Rothstein, J.M.Jesse M., 2004. "College performance predictions and the SAT," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 121(1-2), pages 297-317.
  14. Thomas S. Dee, 2007. "Teachers and the Gender Gaps in Student Achievement," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 42(3).
  15. Rachel Croson & Uri Gneezy, 2009. "Gender Differences in Preferences," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 47(2), pages 448-74, June.
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