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Women not good at math? Blame nurture, not nature: study

Girls are good at languages, boys are best at math.

At least, that's what academics such as former Harvard president Lawrence Summers would have us believe – not to mention the infamous talking Barbie ("Math class is tough!") reprogrammed by Mattel after public outcry over the phrase.

But a new study of tribes in rural India suggests that nurture, not nature, accounts for the gender math gap, reports.

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Researchers led by Moshe Hoffman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego, studied villagers from the Karbi and Khasi tribes, which are genetically similar but different culturally.

In the male-dominated Karbi tribe, women receive four years less schooling than men and may not own land.

But in the Khasi tribe, women are the landowners, men do not handle money and both genders are educated equally.

Dr. Hoffman and his team asked 1,279 Khasi and Karbi villagers to solve four-piece jigsaw puzzles designed to test spatial abilities, which are linked to math and science aptitude.

Researchers found little difference in ability among men and women from the Khasi tribe. Among the Karbi, however, men were 36-per-cent faster at solving the puzzles than women – a difference researchers attributed to the men's greater education.

"This study tells us that culture does matter," Dr. Hoffman told Time. "What makes [it] unique is that we can control for biology."

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did not test participants' accuracy at mentally rotating 3-D figures, which is used in traditional spatial-ability tests.

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Nevertheless, the findings add to the evidence that men's and women's brains are not hardwired differently.

Brain-imaging studies that emphasize sex differences are based on flawed research, according to Cordelia Fine, a researcher and author of Delusions of Gender : How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference.

"When I looked at the actual studies being used as evidence, I was really shocked by how badly the neuroscientific findings were being misrepresented," she told

Fewer than 16 per cent of tenure-track positions in many math-intensive fields are held by women, according to a study published earlier this year. But researchers found that women shy away from such fields due to family commitments and personal reasons. "Females make this choice despite earning higher math and science grades than males throughout schooling," they concluded.

So much for the myth about women being weak in math.

Does this settle the great math debate?

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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