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What Happens When Children Think Girls Are Bad at Math

Girls do worse on math tests when their peers endorse gender stereotypes.

George Pak/Pexels
Source: George Pak/Pexels

In recent years, research on the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields has proliferated. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.) STEM jobs tend to be higher-paying and in higher demand. The potential explanations for why women are less likely to pursue these jobs are numerous. Is it because women are simply not as interested in STEM careers as men are? Or could the hyper-masculine culture of some of these jobs make women feel unwelcome? Perhaps the fact that so many of these jobs aren’t family friendly plays a role? Or – the most controversial possibility – could the gender gap be a result of an inherent gender difference in STEM ability? New research published in the journal Psychological Science points toward a novel explanation for why girls opt out of pursuing STEM fields. According to this research, it’s not that girls aren’t good at math. Instead, it’s that they’re often surrounded by peers who believe boys are inherently better at math.

The stereotype that girls aren’t good at math (or at least not as good as boys are) is widespread and frequently endorsed by children and adults. Both parents and teachers tend to underestimate girls’ math ability relative to their actual performance on math assessments. Some evidence suggests that teachers’ stereotypes about girls’ math ability undermine girls’ confidence and lower their scores on math tests. Less attention has been paid to the effects of negative messages about girls’ math ability that come from peers, even though peer influence plays a substantial role in shaping children’s attitudes and interests.

In the new research, scientists used data from a nationally representative sample of middle school students in China. The sample was limited to schools that randomly assigned students to classrooms (208 classrooms, covering just over 8,000 students). In China, students are assigned to a class at the beginning of middle school, then spend three years with this same group of peers – sharing lectures, study sessions, and social activities. The authors took advantage of the students’ random assignment to classrooms to examine the impact of being in a class in which one’s peers were more (vs. less) likely to believe that boys are inherently better at math than girls are.

At the beginning of the school year, before students had taken any tests, girls and boys completed surveys that included the question, “Do you agree that boys’ natural ability in studying math is greater than that of girls?” The researchers then calculated the gender-math stereotype for a given classroom by determining the proportion of students in a classroom who indicated they believed that boys are inherently superior to girls in math ability. Classes varied quite a bit in terms of the proportion of students who reported that boys are naturally better at math than girls, from 13% to 92%. Interestingly, the proportion of students in a class who endorsed this stereotype was not associated with how many girls or boys were in a class.

Next, the authors obtained scores from standardized tests taken by all students around the mid-point of their semester. Despite the fact that over half of the students in this sample indicated girls are worse at math than boys, overall girls outperformed boys on these standardized tests – not just in math, but also in Chinese and English. What was most interesting, however, was that sharing a classroom with peers who believed girls are bad at math appeared to lower girls’ scores on the math exam and slightly increase boys’ scores. As predicted, the researchers only found this pattern for math scores, not for scores on English or Chinese exams.

Girls in classrooms where a greater proportion of their peers endorsed the gender-math stereotype were also less likely to participate in extracurricular math classes, more likely to report that math is difficult, and less likely to think math is relevant to their future careers. Compared to the boys in these classrooms, girls also reported getting less attention and praise from their math teachers.

Katerina Holmes/Pexels
Source: Katerina Holmes/Pexels

To be clear, many factors influence children’s beliefs about their math abilities and their interest in pursuing math-intensive fields. Additionally, this research was limited by focusing on a single cohort of students. But this new study adds one more piece of evidence that stereotypes about gender and math can affect girls’ beliefs about their own math abilities as well as their actual performance on math assessments. In addition to encouraging girls to persist in math courses and building girls’ confidence in STEM fields, this new study suggests that if we want to increase the representation of women in STEM, we also need to tackle peer beliefs. No matter what a girl's math ability actually is, if she is surrounded by classmates who send the message that girls are bad at math, she might start to believe it.

More from Renee Engeln Ph.D.
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