How Misperceptions About Math Contribute to the Science Gender Gap

A new study looks at how “perceived mathematical ability” affects entry into maths-intensive science fields.

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Jun 9 2015, 8:00pm

The study authors L-R Lara Perez-Felkner, Samantha Nix, Kirby Thomas. Image: Bill Lax/Florida State University

Why are women so underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and maths, the so-called "STEM" subjects? It's an enduring question that doesn't have an easy answer, and is likely influenced by a whole slew of social, personal, and practical factors permeating the pipeline from school through to adulthood.

A study published Tuesday in Frontiers in Psychology takes a look at one specific attribute that shows a discrepancy between the sexes that may influence sex segregation in STEM degrees: perceived maths ability. That is, not how good they are at maths, but how good they think they are.

The study offers an interesting finding: high school girls underrate their mathematics abilities, while boys overrate them (a phenomenon that has been observed before). It suggests that this could affect their decision to study (or indeed not study) mathematics-intensive fields such as physics, engineering, maths, and computer science at university.

Lead author Samantha Nix, a PhD student at Florida State University and lead author of the paper, said she had been interested in the way people talk about math and science. "A very common thing that people say and that has been part of the scholarly literature is this whole concept of 'I'm just not a math person,'" she said. "And that really may be blocking people from making the decision to enter these fields."

"We're not losing weak girls, we're losing some of the best girls."

To investigate whether people's perceptions of their ability were keeping them away from STEM subjects, the researchers looked at data from the Education Longitudinal Study, a national dataset of students across the US.

They looked at the boys' and girls' "perceived ability under challenge." More generally, this was equal between the sexes, but when it came to maths specifically, the paper notes that "mean differences between women and men were highly significant." They also found young men were more likely to report a "growth mindset"—essentially a belief that you can learn and improve at maths (rather than innately being a "math person").

"Together, these findings suggest that young men are better positioned psychologically to be resilient in the face of mathematics-related setbacks, as compared to their female peers," the researchers wrote.

And this matters: the study found that when women perceived themselves as having greater maths ability, they were more likely to go for maths-intensive "PEMC" (physics, engineering, maths, and computer science) majors. The study explains that, "In particular, women's probability of majoring in PEMC increases in association with an increase in their 12th grade perceptions that they could understand and master difficult and complex mathematics material."

Importantly, the research controlled for objective measures of ability—i.e. the girls were underrating themselves compared to boys, they weren't actually all worse. "We're not losing weak girls, we're losing some of the best girls," said co-author Lara Perez-Felkner.

Of course, the million-dollar question is, why do girls doubt their maths ability in the first place?

This study alone can't offer solid answers, but Nix speculated that it could be partly to do with persisting stereotypes around what women are good at. "Women are really socialised to believe that they're better at certain things," she said, singling out writing and communication over more technical tasks.

Previous studies have shown that girls can take in this kind of gender stereotype and that can influence how they perform.

There's also more intersectional research to be done to further understand how other factors such as ethnicity, income, and access to resources might come into play.

When it comes to keeping women in maths and science, Nix additionally suggested that people may be put off by a misperception that students who take maths-heavy subjects don't find them challenging, when actually that's not the case. "Math and science faculty members also had to take Calculus 1 for the first time, and they probably also struggled doing it—that's part of learning," she said. And if girls and women feel more like they're struggling (even if they're not), they might think they don't fit.

That does at least offer a potential way to start addressing the gender gap raised in the new study: by emphasising that maths ability is something that can be developed and grown. This message isn't gender-specific, but if girls are doubting their abilities more then it could have particular benefit for them.

"If boys and girls are getting feedback that challenge is OK, that they shouldn't shut down and they can continue to grow in these areas, and that these fields continue to be relevant for them even if they're struggling, I think that would be helpful for keeping women in these areas," said Perez-Felkner.

XX is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting developments in the Motherboard world.