Can asking women to simply bubble in their gender before a test hurt their performance on math tests? Conversely, does mentioning that a math test is gender-neutral boost women’s achievement? More than a decade of research on “stereotype threat” suggests that the answer to these questions is yes.
When stereotypes – for example, the “math is hard for girls” Barbie myth – are not activated or are actively nullified before math tests, women’s performance improves. Given the ongoing concern about women’s under-representation in the upper echelons of math and science fields, researchers have turned to these social-psychological mechanisms for answers.
A recent paper on stereotype threat by a team of psychologists brings evidence from real college classrooms to bear on this issue. Despite a large body of laboratory evidence on the effects of stereotype threat on women, others have argued that these results do not apply to “real world” settings. In a field experiment at a large public university, psychologists Catherine Good, Joshua Aronson, and Jayne Ann Harder administered an extra credit, pre-final practice exam to students enrolled in the terminal course of the most rigorous and fast-paced calculus sequence offered by the university, a course that satisfied degree requirements for math, science, and engineering degrees. These men and women were, by all accounts, in the pipeline for math and science careers. Students in the “gender nullifying” treatment read just a few extra sentences before taking their tests:
What about gender differences? This mathematics test has not shown any gender differences in performance or mathematics ability. The test has been piloted in many mathematics courses across the nation to determine how reliable and valid the test is for measuring mathematics ability. Analysis of thousands of students’ test results has shown that males and females perform equally well on this test. In other words, this mathematics test shows no gender differences.
In the control group, the test was administered under normal conditions, and women and men performed equally. But women who received the “gender nullifying” treatment (reading the statement above) outperformed men. The authors concluded that “even among the most highly qualified and persistent women in college mathematics, stereotype threat suppresses test performance.”
The question for educators is what we should do with this information. Should teachers provide prompts demonstrated to improve girls’ math performance in the classroom? If so, at what level of the education system is this appropriate? Elementary school, graduate school, or all the way through? By the same token, could the widespread idea that men are less verbal, and thus worse at writing and reading, play a role in their performance in those subjects? If you’re interested in learning more, this website is a great resource and also provides some ideas for reducing stereotype threat.
You can find more detail on the study, “Problems in the Pipeline: Stereotype Threat and Women’s Achievement in High-Level Math Courses,” published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, here. And as always - or at least until I get booked for copyright infringement – you can email me if you can’t access the paper but would like a copy.
Image credit: Fatcatenator.
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