Spain, at the bottom of the European countries in terms of equality in Maths between boys and girls

An article by Josep Corbella published in La Vanguardia on 1st July 2023.

Spain is one of the countries in Europe with the lowest proportion of girls among the best students in secondary Mathematics. In addition, it is one of the countries where the brightest girls in Mathematics tend to have less interest in continuing studies related to Mathematics. This is revealed by an investigation that has analysed data from 251,120 students in the 4th year of ESO (or the equivalent course) from 61 countries, approximately half of them European.

The authors of the work warn that the fact that women are a minority in careers related to Mathematics "contributes to wage inequality, since intensive jobs in Mathematics are better paid," as they write in Nature Communications, where they have presented their results this week. Research has focused on analysing the relationship between students' mathematical competence and their motivation to continue studies that require Mathematics.

The results reveal that, in 56 of the 61 countries analysed, girls are a minority in the 10% of students who perform best in mathematics at age 15 (the five exceptions are Thailand, Malaysia, Jordan, China and Montenegro). And that girls with better math scores tend to be less motivated than boys to pursue disciplines with a strong math content.

The Math gap between boys and girls is larger in OECD countries than in lower-income countries. Within the OECD, Spain stands out as one of the countries where the gap is widest.

Specifically, among the 10% of 4th year ESO students with the best results in Mathematics, in Spain there are only 46 girls for every 100 boys, the second lowest figure in the entire OECD. Among the 10% of students with the best results who express an intention to continue studies related to Mathematics, the figure falls to 21 girls for every 100 boys.

The data from Spain “are not incompatible with equality policies that can have positive effects in other areas, such as wages, employment or access to university. But equality in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) needs specific actions, which are not necessarily addressed in general equality policies”, declares Elyès Jouini, economist at the Paris-Dauphine University (France) and co-author of the research. Jouini, who is also director of the UNESCO Chair in Women and Science, has provided La Vanguardia with detailed data on the 61 countries analysed.

The research was based on data from the 2012 PISA tests, which included questions about students' attitudes towards Mathematics.

The data shows that, for both boys and girls, the better their grades in Mathematics, the more likely they are to want to continue studies related to this area. But this relationship between results and motivation for Mathematics is more pronounced among boys than among girls. And, the better the results, the more the gap widens.

This explains why women continue to be underrepresented in intensive careers in Mathematics, such as Engineering, Physics, Computer Science or Economics. On the contrary, the proportion of women has increased in disciplines such as Molecular Biology, Neurosciences or Law, the researchers point out.

Among the possible causes of the gap, the researchers highlight the persistence of the gender stereotype according to which girls have less mathematical talent than boys. This stereotype, they warn, is self-perpetuating: if the most mathematically talented girls refrain from pursuing disciplines related to mathematics, these disciplines continue to be dominated by men, which maintains the idea that men are more gifted in them.

To break the stereotype, they propose “designing interventions that can encourage more gifted girls to enrol in fields related to Mathematics. These interventions would place more girls among the most visible Math students and professionals” and “could become natural role models” for other girls.