Economics serving society

T. Breda – Inequality and performances in mathematics by girls and boys (March 2018)

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Paris, 16 March 2018

The most unequal countries are also those in which performance gaps between girls and boys in mathematics are the highest.

The gender gaps in average performances in mathematics are close to zero in developed countries. Yet girls remain markedly under-represented in the top 10% of the top pupils. In the OECD countries, there are seven girls for every ten boys who perform strongly in maths, performances that allow them to pursue high-level scientific studies and thus, to a significant extent, access the highest placed and best remunerated jobs. This seven-for-ten ratio also appears in the sciences but is inverted in the humanities. Could this simply be a phenomenon of specific predispositions, boys having more scientific minds and girls more literary ones?

The article published 16 March in the journal Science by Thomas Breda, Elyès Jouini and Clotilde Napp, researchers at the Paris School of Economics, the University of Paris-Dauphine and CNRS (1), sheds new light on this debate.

Using data from five consecutive waves of PISA (from 2003 to 2015, more than 2 million 15 year-old pupils in nearly 70 countries), they show that the under-representation of girls among the best pupils in mathematics and sciences is more marked in the most unequal countries. This relationship is valid over a large sample of countries and a large spread of social inequalities not directly linked to gender, such as income inequality and education system inequality. It is also observed dynamically: between 2003 and 2015, in the countries in which income inequality is increasing the least, the gaps in maths performances shifted most in favour of girls.

These results suggest that gender differences in mathematics performances are a form of social inequality that can be reduced by the institutions most likely to render the education system more inclusive and equitable.

(1) Thomas Breda is CNRS researcher in economics on the Paris Jourdan campus (CNRS/EHESS/ENS Paris/Ecole des ponts Paristech/Inra/Université Panthéon-Sorbonne) of the Paris School of Economics; Elyès Jouini is professor at the University of Paris Dauphine at the Centre de recherches en mathématiques de la décision (CNRS/Université Paris Dauphine); and Clotilde Napp, is CNRS research director in management research (CNRS/Université Paris Dauphine).

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