Beliefs found to affect womens maths performance

According to research published in Science (Vol 314, p435), women led to believe that genetic factors cause female under-achievement subsequently perform much worse in maths tests than those told that social factors (such as teacher attention being given to boys) are responsible.

The two studies, undertaken by Steven Heine and Ilan Dar-Nimrod at the University of British Columbia, Canada, found that reminding a person that they belong to a stereotype causes them to behave accordingly – a process known as ‘Stereotype Threat’. “As our research demonstrates, just hearing about that sort of idea is enough to negatively affect women’s performance, and reproduce the stereotype that is out there,” says Heine.

In the studies, women were given a maths test, then asked to read an article, and finally given a second maths test. There were four articles in total, making the following claims:

  • No Gender Difference – an extensive meta-analysis across multiple countries revealed that males and females performed equally well on math tests.
  • Standard Stereotype – the role of the female body in the arts was discussed with relation to women?s identity.
  • Genetic Sterotype – males perform 5 percentile points better on math tests than women because of some genes that are found on the Y chromosome.
  • Experiential Sterotype – males perform 5 percentile points better on math tests than women because teachers biased their expectations during early school formative years.

The impact on subsequent mathematics tests was pronounced, with those reading the Genetic Stereotype getting about half as many correct answers as those who read the Experiential Stereotype.

“Experiential accounts make people think they can overcome those experiences,” says Heine. “Whereas the ‘genes’ group think of genes as the core of themselves, so ask: how can I overcome this, when this is part of who I am?”

Both Genetic and Standard Stereotype performed worse than those told there were no gender differences, highlighting the self-fulfilling nature of such negative stereotypical beliefs.