Stereotypes Affect Math Competence in Girls, Research Suggests

Contributed by Daniel Calder

While it is clear that women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, there are numerous competing hypotheses, and little consensus, on why this is so. According to a study conducted by Dr. Edith Sand, a Bank of Israel economist and teacher at Tel Aviv University’s Berglas School of Economics, and one of her colleagues, unintentional stereotypes suggesting that women tend to be less skilled in mathematics discourages females from pursuing such a career.

In the study, three groups of Israeli students were given two exams. In one of the exams, the tests were graded by scorers who did not know the students, whereas the other exam was scored by the teacher who was familiar with the names of the students. When the test was graded anonymously, the girls outscored the boys, but when the test was graded by a teacher who knew the student, the boys outscored the girls. Interestingly enough, this effect was absent in tests that did not have to do with mathematics.

The research suggest that teachers tend to unconsciously overestimate the mathematical talents of boys while underestimating the mathematical skill in girls. These same boys tended to score higher than these same girls on matriculation exams, even though these were the same girls who had outscored these same boys on mathematical portions of anonymously graded tests. This experiment has crucial ramifications for how teachers may unconsciously perpetuate harmful stereotypes in girls, and ought to provide tremendous incentive to suit encouragement to more objective measures of mathematical skill in both sexes.

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