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Sex differences in mathematics and reading achievement are inversely related

Within- and Across-Nation Assessment of 10 Years of PISA Data

2013-04-29
The sex difference in reading was three times as large as in mathematics

Sex differences in mathematics and reading achievement are inversely related

Within- and Across-Nation Assessment of 10 Years of PISA Data

maths reading education diferences

We analyzed one decade of data collected by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), including the mathematics and reading performance of nearly 1.5 million 15 year olds in 75 countries. Across nations, boys scored higher than girls in mathematics, but lower than girls in reading.

The sex difference in reading was three times as large as in mathematics. There was considerable variation in the extent of the sex differences between nations. There are countries without a sex difference in mathematics performance, and in some countries girls scored higher than boys.

Boys scored lower in reading in all nations in all four PISA assessments (2000, 2003, 2006, 2009). Contrary to several previous studies, we found no evidence that the sex differences were related to nations’ gender equality indicators. Further, paradoxically, sex differences in mathematics were consistently and strongly inversely correlated with sex differences in reading: Countries with a smaller sex difference in mathematics had a larger sex difference in reading and vice versa. We demonstrate that this was not merely a between-nation, but also a within-nation effect. This effect is related to relative changes in these sex differences across the performance continuum: We did not find a sex difference in mathematics among the lowest performing students, but this is where the sex difference in reading was largest.

In contrast, the sex difference in mathematics was largest among the higher performing students, and this is where the sex difference in reading was smallest. The implication is that if policy makers decide that changes in these sex differences are desired, different approaches will be needed to achieve this for reading and mathematics. Interventions that focus on high-achieving girls in mathematics and on low achieving boys in reading are likely to yield the strongest educational benefits.


Citation: Stoet G, Geary DC (2013) Sex Differences in Mathematics and Reading Achievement Are Inversely Related: Within- and Across-Nation Assessment of 10 Years of PISA Data. PLoS ONE 8(3): e57988. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057988

Editor: Eshel Ben-Jacob, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Received: August 27, 2012; Accepted: January 17, 2013; Published: March 13, 2013

Copyright: © 2013 Stoet, Geary. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Funding: This work was undertaken using the Advanced Research Computing facilities at The University of Leeds. Geary acknowledges support from the R37 HD045914 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist. 

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Source: Plos One
The sex difference in reading was three times as large as in mathematics

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