In tests of extreme math intelligence, boys still outscore girls in the US but the gap is closing fast

Lego might help her keep up.
Lego might help her keep up.
Image: AP Images for LEGO/Paul Morigi
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We live in an enlightened age in which it is considered offensive and wrong (at least in polite society) to suggest women are not as smart and capable as men. But when it comes to extreme genius—Nobel-prize winning, scientific breakthrough-making, earth-shattering levels of intelligence—many still assume that men have an advantage.

In a narrow sense, the data backs up this sentiment.

Each year, high-achieving American 12-year-olds are invited to take the SAT, a standardized test normally given to high-school students as part of the university admissions process. On average, girls do slightly better than boys in both the math and verbal sections. But when it comes to the very top math performers, the boys have long dominated.

Whether this is because boys are innately better at math or if girls are socially conditioned not to be math superstars remains an open question. But the latest round of test data strongly suggests the difference rests with the latter.

The gender gap in top SAT math scores

Since the 1980s, and particularly in the past decade, girls have had more encouragement and more female role models in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. If social conditioning were the primary cause of the difference in test scores, you’d expect the gender gap to narrow, and it did.

In the 1980s, boys made up 93% of the very high math scorers; there were 14 boys for every girl in the top 0.01% of math scores. By the mid-1980s, the ratio had fallen below 8-to-1, and since 2010 the ratio has been closer to 2.5-to-1.

Now there’s even more evidence environment can explain the discrepancy. Duke University researchers examining the trends note that while girls now account for 28% of top scorers in the US, girls account for only 11% of the top math scores among school children in India, where girls still face more bias.

The results in the US are encouraging. If the trend continues, we will soon see gender parity among math stars, making it easy to imagine that in a few decades we’ll have just as many Nobel prize-winning women as men in STEM fields.

But the lead author on the Duke study cautions the last years of data could be a blip. Matthew Makel, director of research at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, says it’s hard to say exactly what has changed since the 1980s—it could be social expectations from society, teachers, and parents. Or it could be there’s more motivation to achieve in STEM fields because that’s where the jobs are.

The closing of the test score gap doesn’t solve the STEM achievement gap

But even if the girls are equally able, and equally hirable, many may still underachieve in STEM fields. Researchers at Vanderbilt also studied these precocious young SAT-takers and followed their careers over a 50-year period. While they, too, observed fewer women in the top 0.01% of math scores, they noticed women who were in the top 1% also tended to have better verbal skills compared with the male test-takers. (Overall, there are still more high-performing girls than boys in the verbal sections of the SAT.)

The Vanderbilt researchers concluded that while there are not many female math superstars, brilliant women tend to have a more well-rounded intelligence than their male counterparts. But they also noticed the women were more likely to choose roles that were less research focused and attracted to jobs that also made use of their equally strong communication skills. And that’s the kind of career path that—while potentially fulfilling in its own way—can, for example, steer women away from the lab where an award-winning scientific breakthrough might occur.