A panel of women researchers yesterday challenged suggestions that boys are genetically better than girls in mathematics.

A highly publicized Johns Hopkins University study on gifted children did not demonstrate "genetic differences" between the sexes in mathematical ability, insisted University of Wisconsin educator Elizabeth Fennema.

Saying there were "serious problems" with the controversial research, she charged that the Baltimore scientists and Science magazine were "socially irresponsible" in publishing the work. The study, involving over 10,000 gifted children, found boys "superior" in mathematical reasoning.

Fennema said the suggestion would further discourage girls because it sends a message to "lay people that girls shouldn't learn math."

She contended, in a press conference at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting here, that the genetic debate was "irrelevant," that social and educational factors are far more responsible for the reported math differences between the sexes.

Besides citing sex-related differences in the amount of mathematics studied, she said females "appear not to be learning math as well as are males" because of differences in the learning environment.

"While inadequate training in mathematics hampers everyone, many more females than males fail to achieve their full potential in mathematics," said the Wisconsin researcher.

She added that "without mathematical knowledge and skills, women will never be able to achieve equity in society" since math is crucial to advanced education and the many technical jobs that have traditionally been held by men.

Chicago researcher Anne Petersen agreed that "recent claims that mathematical precocity is more likely to be inherited by boys than girls is not supported by any existing evidence."

Petersen, who directs the Laboratory for the Study of Adolescence at Michael Reese Medical Center, did acknowledge "some support" for believing that biological factors, such as prenatal and post-puberty hormones, affect reasoning ability. But she said that the scientific strength of this evidence is "modest" at best.

She noted that the "biggest sex differences" appeared to be related to attitudes about the importance of mathematics in the future, with boys viewing the subject as more "useful and interesting."

Fennema said that differences in achievements were related to the "self-confidence" of the female students and the expectations of teachers.

For example, a recent study she conducted of girls in grades 6 through 8 "clearly" showed that math teachers pay far less attention to girls than boys.

Fennema and others around the country have been involved in intervention programs that encourage elementary and secondary school girls to become more involved in math.

Her own program, showing specially prepared videotapes to target groups of girls, boys, counselors and teachers, was able, she said, to "substantially influence" sex-related attitudes about mathematics.