Last month, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin
released a powerful study titled "Exploring Bias in Math Teachers'
Perceptions of Students' Ability by Gender and Race/Ethnicity."
Utilizing data from the National Center of Education Statistics,
researchers focused on math grades and standardized test scores of
15,000 10th-graders from across the country, as well as survey
results from their math teachers. The teachers were asked to rate
the level of difficulty in their math classes as too easy,
appropriate or too difficult.
The study found that, in spite of standardized test scores and
class grades to the contrary, high school math teachers consistently
overrated the math abilities of white males while consistently
underrating the ability of white girls and minority students of both
genders. These findings held even after the study's authors
accounted for race, whether the students went to a private or public
school, income and education level, geographic region and urbanicity
of a school.
The teachers in this study were not new teachers: most had 15
years of experience. Ironically, 55 percent of the students were
taught by female math teachers.
Citing the work of Charles and Bradley (2002), the authors of the
University of Texas study wrote that the idea that girls aren't as
good in math as boys likely persists in spite of data to the
contrary "because the idea that men and women are different in this
regard is considered natural and not discriminatory."
The prevalence of gender bias against girls even among educators
raises an alarming concern: the very real effects of "stereotype
Stereotype threat is a well-documented phenomenon in which a
stereotyped group (in this case, girls) actually begins to transform
its behavior to conform to negative stereotypes. When girls detect
that teachers, parents, friends and society in general believe that
girls and women aren't good in math or that math is "for boys," then
girls unconsciously lower their performance to meet this
In other words, gender bias about academic ability does more than
hurt a girl's feelings; it actually hurts her performance.
Decades of research, conducted both in classrooms and in
laboratory settings, document the negative impact of stereotypes and
gender bias on the academic performance and academic self confidence
of girls. Minority women may encounter a double jeopardy of
stereotype threat related to race and gender.
Stereotype threat in math and science may explain why so many
fewer women pursue degrees and careers in the STEM disciplines
(science, technology, engineering and math) even as more women
graduate from college than men.
Moreover, adult beliefs that girls just aren't as good as boys in
STEM subjects may prevent girls from developing the basic confidence
and competence that makes degrees and careers in STEM possible. By
discouraging girls from excelling in STEM subjects at school we
compromise the future of our region and our nation to compete in
elite professions like engineering, biotechnology and computer
What can be done?
All of us -- educators, parents, employers and mentors -- could
start by confronting our own gender biases. …