February 8, 2008

Stereotypes Affect Female Math Scores

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According to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, women in high-level math courses face a phenomenon called stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs when a behavior confirms an existing stereotype; in this case, the stereotype is that women do not perform as well as men on mathematical assessments.
The study, “Problems in the Pipeline: Stereotype Threat and Women’s Achievement in High-Level Math Courses,” was conducted by Catherine Good of Barnard College, Joshua Aronson of New York University and Jayne Ann Harder of the University of Texas, Austin.
The results show that although biological factors may play a role in why women do not perform as well as the opposite sex, the main reason is “vulnerability to negative stereotypes disseminated in the broader culture.”
The experiment consisted of a control and variable group of an equal number of men and women in a college-level mathematics class. The first group of men and women were given normal testing conditions and were told that an exam was to test their math abilities. The second group of men and women were given the same conditions but also told that the exam “showed no gender differences.” The women in the control group outperformed not only the other women, but the men as well.
Jenna Rae ’08 and Wanling Yih ’08, co-presidents of the Society of Women Engineers, are concerned about gender biases affecting women. An unfortunate consequence of the stereotype threat is that women have a decreased interest in math and science by the time they reach college, leading to fewer women in careers related to those fields. Roughly 30 percent of the current freshmen in the College of Engineering are women, well over the national average of 18 percent.
In order to attract more women to male dominated professions like engineering, efforts need to begin well before high school.
“Those of us who chose to become engineers had always been stronger in math and science in high school; that’s why we chose this path,” Yih said.
“We’re very aware of the issue and a lot of our activity is geared towards middle school students because that is frequently when, in girls lives, they decide, ‘Okay, math and science is not for me,’” Rae said. “Just because things around you might be sending you signals that you might not be capable or able to pursue engineering, the fact is you’re just as capable as any of the men out there.”
Danielle Brody ’11, a chemical engineering major, said that the stereotype threat is definitely something that has an impact on women in math and science.
“I agree with the study because how else can you explain why only 30 percent of women are in engineering, when on the whole, men and women had comparable primary and high school educations?” Brody said.
Prof. David Dunning, psychology, said that it is safe to say that the stereotype threat is a phenomenon that is well validated through empirical research.
“There have been lots of studies done on it in lots of different groups: women, African Americans, European Americans and so forth, showing that if there is a stereotype out there that suggests that this group may not be as good as another group, the stereotype can come to interfere with actual performance when people hit challenging circumstances,” Dunning said.
There are a number of factors that can explain why the stereotype threat does have an impact on performance including an increase in anxiety, a decrease in effort or motivation, reduced expectancy and preoccupation. Critics of the study argue that people who are proficient in the area in which they are being tested are immune to the stereotype threat.
“For the effect to show up, it doesn’t have to be an effect that occurs for everybody. If there are enough people who are influenced by the stereotype, it can show up and have a tremendous impact on the group,” Dunning said.
According to the authors of the study, another aim of the research was to test whether the stereotype threat could be reduced and replicated and implemented in schools. The researchers said they hoped that their findings would help the underrepresentation of women in math and science by encouraging gender fair testing.
“These studies often are delineating exactly what is going on. We can try out different types of interventions, different types of programs that counteract these effects, but I think we’ve hardly exhausted looking at all the different types of interventions we can create to try to defeat the stereotype threat,” Dunning said.