In a recent math competition that spanned a number of rounds, researchers found that after the first round the differences in performance between boys and girls disappeared. According to the study published by economists from Utah’s Brigham Young University the gender disparity evident in one-shot events – competitions that only have one round – was no longer evident when teams get an opportunity for a rematch.
Unfortunately, the study couldn’t answer the lingering question of why girls underperformed their male peers in the initial test – even one administered on paper and not in a public setting where embarrassment might be a factor.
The difference in scores between boys and girls during the first round is substantial. In a ten-point test, girls score on average one point less than their male peers.
Because the schools shared past test scores with the researchers, they could compare how similarly talented boys and girls performed. Even though these matches look even on paper, for some reason boys have the edge when it’s the first foray into a competitive setting. On a test worth ten points, it usually amounts to a one-point edge for boys in the initial round.
“We don’t know if it’s boys getting excited and over-performing or if it’s girls being too uncomfortable with the situation,” Price said.
The experiment was run in 24 middle schools who conducted a five-round mathematics competition for their students. The results clearly showed that once the results were tallied, the genders either performed equally well, or girls slightly outperformed their male classmates.
Students were paired against an opponent and given five minutes to answer as many questions on a mathematics quiz as they could. When scores were equal, ties were decided based on time. Winners were given small prizes. The first attempt went squarely to the boys, but once that first hurdle was cleared, both genders performed equally well.
To figure out what was hobbling the girls initially, the researchers asked 6 of the classrooms running the experiment to change the methodology further. They were asked to deemphasize the time component, and even though the 5-minute time constraint remained in place, proctors were asked to stress that students weren’t racing against each other.
With those two small adjustments, girls competed evenly with boys from the start. BYU math professor Jessica Purcell, who was not involved with the study, wasn’t surprised that the format adjustments resulted in more parity.
“In mathematical settings without time pressure or competition, such as classes I have taught or classes I have taken, males and females seem to do equally well,” said Purcell, a recipient of the prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship.
Since boys’ competitive advantage is so short-lived, the study authors suggest that a little encouragement could go a long way.