Author: Asante, K Oppong
Date published: December 1, 2010
Over the last decades, psychologists have grappled with the nature and the origin of sex differences in behaviour and cognition. Research on sex differences, its causes and consequences is not only of academic interest, but concerns general academic policy. Sex differences in mathematics performance and ability remain a concern as scientists seek to address the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering (Halpern, et al., 2007). Stereotypes that girls and women lack mathematical ability persist and are widely held by parents and teachers (Frome & Eccles, 1998).
Mathematics, as a tool for understanding and application of science and technology, plays an important role of a precusor and harbinger to the much needed technological and of course national development, which has become an imperative in the developing nations of the world. The choice of this topic is predicated on the current world trend and research emphasis on gender issues following the millennium declaration of September 2000 (United Nations, 2000) which has as its goal, the promotion of gender equity, the empowerment of women and the elimination of gender inequality in basic and secondary education by 2005 and at all levels by 2015. In realization of the significant role of mathematics to nation building, the Ghanaian government made the subject compulsory at the basic and secondary levels. This was aimed at ensuring the inculcation of mathematics literacy and the associated equipment with logical and abstract thinking needed for living, problem solving and educational furtherance. For full realization of this laudable objective of mathematics education, subject mastery and demonstrated achievement should be evenly distributed across gender. Unfortunately, gender inequality in education has remained a perennial problem of global scope (Bordo, 2001; UNESCO, 2003; Reid, 2003).
Several research studies have shown that gender differences in mathematics learning are not clear during the elementary school years (Hyde & Geiringer, 1975; Mann, Sasanuma , Sakuma, & Masaki, 1990), but girls begin to fall behind boys during the interm ediate school years, and they fall further behind during the high school years (Fennema, 1974, 1980; Leder, 1985).
Kimball (1989) cited many studies showing that boys in high school generally achieved higher scores than girls on standardized tests. Studies of gender differences in mathematics achievement (Hedges & Nowell, 1995; Peterson & Fennema, 1985; Randhawa, 1994) found that, in general, males outperformed females in mathematics during the high school years. Other studies (Fox, Brody, & Tobin, 1980) emphasized high mathematics achievement being dominated by males. Leder (1992) has also reported the existence of gender differences in science subjects, in general, as well as in mathematics
The evidence reported so far indicates that males appear to do better than females in mathematics performance; however, recent studies have challenged this trend by showing that this gap has declined (Barker, 1997; Hyde, Fennema, & Lamon, 1990; Knodel, 1997). Catsambus (1994) believes that it persists for some race and ethnic groups, and among high-performing students who may constitute a nation's mathematics talent pool. These changes in the magnitude of the overall trend seem to have reduced, whereby, gender differences in areas traditionally favouring boys are diminishing or shifting to favour girls. Other studies have shown no gender differences in mathematics performance (Bronholt, Goodnow,& Conney,1994; Ma, 1995; Guiso, Monte, Sapienza, & Zingales,2008; Hyde, et al, 2009).
The entire debate on sex differences, literature and observations reached have centered on Western samples and a few ones from Asia, whilst very little data came from developing countries such as Ghana. The paucity of data in this respect limits our understanding of the general phenomenon of sex differences worldwide. Perhaps, a consideration of the African factor, or a third world, in general would have shaded some light on our understanding of the general sex differences, and a quest of social mediators in the debate. It is the aim of this study to find out whether such evidence would be found among Ghanaian high school students. It is also the aim of this study to examine whether the performance of males in mathematics differ in any significant way from their females counterparts.
Participant for the study were high school students in the Greater Accra region in Ghana. Three high schools were selected based on the Ghana Education Service categorization of schools into first, second and third classes of schools. In each of these selected schools, students in their final year (Level III) were sampled. In all 184 students made up of 111 boys and 74 girls. Three student's records were excluded because their record marks were incomplete. Their mean age was 17.39 years (range 16-21 years).
Actual mathematics Performance
Mathematics performance scores for each student current year (third year) in school and for the preceding first year were derived from a composite of each student's mark. The average of their marks in the three terms for each of the year (both first and third) was used as measure of mathematics performance.
The survey was administered during their mathematics class and instructions were read aloud by the researcher as they listened attentively. Instructions were in English, which is the official language in Ghana. Before the distribution of the questionnaire, the participants were assured that the data was for academic purposes only. The participants were instructed to concentrate hard on the task and to work speedily but accurately. Independent work was ensured by telling them that they were not allowed to consult fellow students. Questionnaires and pencils were handed out, and the students were to write the name of their school, the class in which they were in, and their own sex and age. They were given 30 minutes to fill in the questionnaire.
The student's performance in mathematics was assessed through the use of their classroom records, and their mathematics score was examined with the help of their class teachers. Data on both their first year performance and third year performance were collected. This study presents only the preliminary findings on mathematics performance and the gender dimension.
Sex differences and effect sizes
To examine whether there was sex difference in mathematics performance, the students' scores were subjected to an independent sample t-test. The result indicated that there was a significant sex difference in the first year performance, t (179) = 4.47, p<.001 and the third year, t (179) = 10.8, p<.001. The performance in mathematics showed reliable and clear cut sex differences in favor of males. Also the magnitudes of the sex differences correspond to a large effect size (Cohen, 1992) on both the first year and the third year performance in mathematics.
In addition to the differences between boys and girls, the within sex differences for boys and girls in their first and third year performance in mathematics was also explored. The results indicated that there were a significant difference between first and third year performance for boys, t (108) = 21.21, p<.001 and between first and third year performance for girls, t (71) = 4.42, p<. 001. These differences were very large among the boys (d = 4.08) than that of the girls (d= 1.05).
In general, the present analyses suggest that high school males in this study outperformed females in mathematics performance, in contrast with several other studies in which females outperform males (Alhateeb, 2001; Benbow,1992; Robinson, Abbott, Berninger, & Busse; (1996) and where there are no differences in mathematics performance (Bronholt, Goodnow, & Conney,1994; Ma, 1995; Guiso, Monte,Sapienza, & Zingales,2008; Hyde, et al, 2009). Findings in this study indicate a clear-cut sex differences in mathematics performance between boys and girls in high schools in Ghana. Thus the gap found in this study is in line with gender differences in cognitive abilities reported by some authors cited earlier.
Some of the socio- cultural factors in Ghana may be considered to explain the gap between the sexes. The large sex differences in mathematics performance in Ghana may be attributed to social perception. The information gathered is that families looked forward to the sex of a new born baby to predict its future, based on cultural expectations and sanctions. Therefore the male dominance factor in African societies cannot be underestimated in mathematics ability and conceptual developments. In most African societies of which Ghana is of no exception, boys are expected to be socially mobile because parents generally invest more money into their education than the girl child. Girls are generally looked upon to preserve the status quo of tradition, thus, in many cases, girls' education are curtailed by early marriage. Gallagher (1998) noted that children are socialized from birth into male and females "cultures" based on their sex classification. Different set of behaviors are either rewarded or discouraged by parents, teachers and peers depending on the gender group to which a child has been assigned.
The school environment is also an equally important influence in the gender difference in mathematics. Changes in mathematicrelated attitudes are associated with developmental change in gender identity (Gallagher & Kaufman, 2006). During this stage, girls begin to firmly establish their feminine identity and thus become susceptible to social and environmental pressures that undermine their self-confidence and performance in male dominated subject like mathematics. The learning environment that students face when they enter high school in Ghana may interact with adolescent development changes in ways that may result in low interest in mathematics as suggested by Steincamp & Maehr, (1984). Numerous studies have tried to identify the aspects of the schooling environment that contribute to the gender difference in mathematics performance. Existing research has concentrated on three general features of the schooling experiences namely organizational characteristics of students and classrooms, social interaction within the school (between students and school authorities, or among students themselves) and methods of assessment and curriculum content (Gallagher & Kaufman, 2006).
Some researchers believe that there are genetic reasons for the differences between males and females in mathematics performance. However, if gender differences in mathematics achievement are due to biological factors, they should remain relatively constant among different cultures. Findings in this study support the claim of Fennema and Sherman (1977) that the difference in mathematics achievement is due to societal influence and not genetic (Benbow & Stanley, 1980; Halpern, 1997; Scarr, 1993). Similarity of gender differences in mathematics achievement in favor of males across many different cultures supports the influence of biological factors like sex on academic achievement (Hacker, 1992). Such similarity implies that biological factors may positively influence males' school performance more than females' and supports the findings in this study. Also, findings in this study do support the pattern of gender difference (Peterson & Fennema, 1985), in which girls begin to fall further behind boys in the high school years.
Implications for educational policy
Even though sex differences in mathematics performance have been found, different kind of educational objective for each sex would not be recommended. However, attempts to match students learning style and attitudes with their performance for a group of students have generally proved to be disappointing (Glaser, 1972). Yet, Glaser suggests that teachers must fill the need missed of a students' previous level of education.
The gender influence of sex-role stereotypes in determining behavior is an important issue in human endeavor. With particular regard to sex difference in mathematics performance, the Stereotypie behavior in the classroom and school environment as well as the family are found to be decisive in behavior emission. Research into the classroom behavior has shown that girls are more likely to get positive remarks if they stand close to their teachers, while boys are also likely to get positive reinforcement from their teachers if they stand distant from them (Serbin et al., 1973). If a teacher in his wisdom thinks that his or her students possess certain qualities depending on the sex, he/she may recommend specific line of studies for the pupil. In Ghana, some schools are designated as boys' schools and girls' schools, and in such situations it will be the prerogatives of the teachers to teach what may be appropriate for either sex based on the stereotypes the teachers have. This would eventually lead to neglecting to a large extent, areas thought of as male domain when the school happens to be a female one and vice versa.
Other studies bearing on this issue have been reported that, among junior high school students, and even among students at higher levels, girls generally receive more positive feedback than boys from their teachers for extra-curriculum activities such as neatness and orderly behavior while boys are reinforced more than girls for curriculum activities like doing home work and scoring higher marks in assignments (Dweck & Bush, 1976). If this positive male-teacher approach continues, the resultant effect is that girls would begin to show more motivation to mathematics and science related subjects.
Greater collaboration in school funding should be pursue by the government at all levels so that the public schools which are so poorly funded could improve their capacity for productivity. The government should apply itself to the United Nations prescribed minimum budgetary allocation for education.
Guidance machinery in the school should be energized to encourage more females participation in effective mathematics learning. The female students should be informed that mathematics could be studied and passed just like other subjects, and that the subject is an essential tool, a prerequisite for further education in a host of vocations. Failure in mathematics is therefore a serious setback in capacity building and human development.
The study corroborated other research findings that Western empirical findings on sex differences in mathematics performance can be generalized to African culture or perspective. For a better understanding of gender differences, it is recommended that further studies should be conducted to carefully investigate the individual contribution of each of these conjectures or combinations of these on gender differences, using standardized achievement tests to explain the way these factors affect the mathematics achievement level. Moreover, it would be interesting to investigate the effect of the socioeconomic status on sex differences in mathematics performance in Ghana.
The authors declare no competing interests
The author designed the study, carried out the fieldwork and statistical analyses for a Master thesis under the supervision of Prof Sturla Krekling. I drafted this write up.
Thanks to Dr. Charity Akotia, University of Ghana for her immense guidelines during the data collection. I also wish to thank Gifty Pabitey, fieldwork assistants and the numerous students that participated in the study. Finally, my special thank you goes to Prof Sturla Krekling for guidance during the preparation of both my master thesis and this article. Many thanks to all colleagues who read the draft manuscript and made comments The study was funded by the Norwegian Educational State Fund (Quota Program).
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K. Oppong Asante*
Department of Human Development and Psychology, Regent
University College of Science and Technology, Accra, Ghana.
* Corresponding author: Kwaku Oppong Asante, P.O.Box AT 1125, Achimota Accra. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; Tel: Tel: (+233) 208 375 184/ 246 121 018