Research Brief

Math Gender Gap: Nonexistent for Blacks, Notable for Affluent Whites

Well-to-do families doting on their sons at daughters’ expense?

The gender gap in math — girls performing poorly relative to boys — is so widely discussed it might seem as if it applies to everyone.

But a working paper by London School of Economics’ Gaia Dossi, Northwestern’s David Figlio and Paola Sapienza and UCLA Anderson’s Paola Giuliano suggests the gap is driven by affluent families, and in fact finds, among Black students, girls outperforming boys.

The paper, published by the National Bureau of Economics, could help turn attention to lagging males in math classes, who statistically are more likely to be Black, not just lagging females who statistically are more likely to be white.

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In previous research, Dossi, Figlio, Giuliano and Sapienza used federal and state databases to examine the impact of parental gender bias on the math performance of children. Those findings suggest parents who favor the birth of boys tend to have girls who score an average of three percentage points lower on standardized math tests.

A preference for boys, driven by cultural and religious traditions, is still found in many countries including the United States. Other researchers have identified a correlation between higher socioeconomic status and gender bias. A 2010 study of U.S. elementary and middle school children found girls fall behind boys in math relatively more in families with higher maternal education. 

In both the prior study and the current one, researchers use fertility stopping rules — where couples continue having children until they have their desired number of sons — to identify families who are “boy-biased.”

For their latest project, Dossi, Figlio, Giuliano and Sapienza created a database using information from the Florida Department of Education and birth certificates for children born between 1994 and 2002. The records include standardized math test scores for students from sixth to 10th grade for the academic years 2002 –2003 and 2011–2012. The sample is controlled for age, gender and race and whether the child participates in a special education class.

Overall, girls perform worse than boys. However, when the sample is broken down by race, the poorer math performance of girls in white families drives the gender gap. Black girls, on the other hand, do better than the boys.

Maternal education and eligibility for free or reduced lunch are used in the study to determine the impact of socioeconomic status. In both groups, the study finds, the performance gap between boys and girls appears “to be driven by relatively affluent families.” But among the Black families, the “effect of the gender bias is null, and there is no significant difference across socio-economic status.” 

At least a couple of explanations are possible, according to Dossi, Figlio, Giuliano and Sapienza. Boys may be more adversely impacted than girls by conditions associated with a lower socioeconomic status, such as a lack of nutritious food or an unsafe home life. Separately, affluent families with a bias for boys may invest more in their education, placing their girls at a disadvantage.

The research supports the theory that parents with gender bias devote a larger share of their educational and financial resources to their boys, creating the “perverse effect” of widening the gender gap while “families with limited resources are less likely to contribute to the gender gap in mathematics, notwithstanding their gender biases.”

Featured Faculty

  • Paola Giuliano

    Professor of Economics; Justice Elwood Lui Endowed Term Chair in Management

About the Research

Dossi G., Figlio D., Giuliano P., Sapienza P., The Family Origin of the Math Gender Gap is a White Affluent Phenomenon. DOI: 10.3386/w28326

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