Girls Can Do Math Just Fine, Thank You and Those Who Think They Can't May Hurt More Than Their Feelings

By Benedict, Randie | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), May 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Girls Can Do Math Just Fine, Thank You and Those Who Think They Can't May Hurt More Than Their Feelings


Benedict, Randie, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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 threat."

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 expectation.

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 science.

What can be done?

All of us -- educators, parents, employers and mentors -- could start by confronting our own gender biases. …

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