Math-related industries are dominated by men and a new study published in the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) may have found an explanation.

Previous research shows that boys and girls are “equally equipped” to succeed in math studies, but fewer women study maths at the post-secondary level.

To determine why, researchers analyzed data on 300,000 15-year-old students from 64 countries.

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Globally, students of all genders demonstrated proficiencies in math and reading, but female students who were good at math appeared to be “much more likely” to be better at reading than their male counterparts.

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The study suggests girls may be socialized to think math and literature are mutually exclusive fields and they must choose one over the other, despite being qualified to study both. Because some female students see a “competitive advantage” over males in reading, they may be more likely to deviate from math.

The authors of the paper believe that girls’ comparative verbal advantage, when measured against the difference in their reading and math scores, could “explain up to 80% of the gender gap in intentions to pursue math-studies and careers.”


And then there are the other social factors at play — among them, the fact that girls are more likely to be steered towards careers in the arts and humanities over STEM.

Erin Hogeboom of the National Girls Collaborative Project told CNN girls “internalize” social cues and stereotypes about STEM at a young age, and that could impact future career choices.

“It can be as subtle as educators asking a question in a STEM course and unintentionally calling on boys more than girls,” she told the news outlet.

“In mass media, we don’t see a lot of women being championed and celebrated for their STEM achievements.”

The paper does not determine why some girls score higher in reading over math at 15 years of age and it doesn’t track progress over time, so it’s hard to say if the scores would improve or degrade as the students grow older.

Still, the paper’s authors are quick to point out the data shouldn’t be construed to suggest women are inherently bad at math.

Read the full paper here.