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

  • Muriel Niederle
  • Lise Vesterlund

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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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. Rachel Croson & Uri Gneezy, 2009. "Gender Differences in Preferences," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 47(2), pages 448-74, June.
  2. Aldo Rustichini & Uri Gneezy, 2004. "Gender and competition at a young age," Framed Field Experiments 00151, The Field Experiments Website.
  3. Thomas S. Dee, 2007. "Teachers and the Gender Gaps in Student Achievement," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 42(3).
  4. Cason, Timothy & Masters, William & Sheremeta, Roman, 2010. "Entry into Winner-Take-All and Proportional-Prize Contests: An Experimental Study," MPRA Paper 49886, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  5. Muriel Niederle & Carmit Segal & Lise Vesterlund, 2013. "How Costly Is Diversity? Affirmative Action in Light of Gender Differences in Competitiveness," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 59(1), pages 1-16, May.
  6. 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.
  7. Marie-Claire Villeval & Nabanita Datta Gupta & Anders Poulsen, 2005. "Male and Female Competitive Behavior - Experimental Evidence," Working Papers 0512, Groupe d'Analyse et de Théorie Economique (GATE), Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), Université Lyon 2, Ecole Normale Supérieure.
  8. Carmit Segal, 2006. "Motivation, test scores and economic success," Economics Working Papers 1124, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, revised Oct 2008.
  9. 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.
  10. Rothstein, J.M.Jesse M., 2004. "College performance predictions and the SAT," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 121(1-2), pages 297-317.
  11. 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.
  12. Eckel, Catherine C. & Grossman, Philip J., 2008. "Men, Women and Risk Aversion: Experimental Evidence," Handbook of Experimental Economics Results, Elsevier.
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  16. 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.
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