Among top math students, why does a gender gap persist?

Wharton health care management professor Ashley Swanson has new research that looks at the gender gap among top math students in high school. Closing the gender gap in school performance is an important step toward shrinking the gender gap in pay when these students enter the workforce, so the research has far-reaching implications. Her paper, “Dynamics of the Gender Gap in High Math Achievement,” reveals a much higher gender gap at higher levels of performance.


“The gender gap at average levels of math performance has declined a lot over time, which is great,” explains Swanson. “But if you look at these higher levels—like the 95th percentile or the 99th percentile—the gender gap is high and growing as you go to higher and higher levels of performance, which is not so good.”

Her paper explores the root causes of these gaps. “One way of answering this question is to investigate what happens mechanically. Is it that high-performing girls are more likely to drop out of the contest? Is it that talented girls are less likely to drop into the contest over time after the ninth grade? Is it that talented girls are less likely to improve enough from year to year to stay highly ranked within the program? The short answer is yes. Each of those factors cuts against girls and contributes to a widening of the gender gap over time.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.