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The Math Gender Gap: Nurture Trumps Nature

“It would be wrong [to conclude from the new study] that nature doesn’t play a role. [But] nurture plays a substantial role, large enough that we can even see a gender difference wiped out.”

Indeed, culture is not limited simply to encouragement of young girls in grade-school math. Studies that have looked at gender gaps in math performance have found that the more equitably a country treats its people, the smaller that gap is. In Scandinavian countries, for example, where men and women share paid family leave and high quality day care is affordable, the gap is much narrower.

Girls in those countries see in their mothers’ lives that child-rearing and math careers are not incompatible; the mothers also don’t have to give up high powered jobs to have kids so they reach higher levels of equality with men at work. Even in the U.S., the ranks of female math and science professors—including those in tenure-track positions— are growing appreciably.

“These questions of biology could be possibly relevant if we had solved all of the social problems,” says Goldin. “It could be that there’s a difference, but it doesn’t matter when you have such gaping cultural differences.”

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