Stereotypes don’t explain the gender gap in math

“Stereotype threat” doesn’t explain why fewer females excel in math, conclude University of Missouri Professor David Geary and University of Leeds Professor Gijsbert Stoet.

Since 1999, numerous studies have claimed that women’s math performance is undermined by lack of confidence, which is caused by the belief that men are better at math. “The stereotype theory really was adopted by psychologists and policy makers around the world as the final word, with the idea that eliminating the stereotype could eliminate the gender gap,” says Geary. “However, even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem continued. We now believe the wrong problem is being addressed.”

Many studies of stereotype threat were poorly designed and used statistical techniques improperly, Geary and Stoet argue.

“We were surprised the researchers did not subject males to the same experimental manipulations as female participants,” Geary said. “It is reasonable to think that men also would not do well if told ‘men normally do worse on this test’ right before they take the test. When we adjusted the findings based on this and other statistical factors, we found little to no significant stereotype theory effect.”

Focusing on reducing stereotypes will not produce more female mathematicians and scientists, Geary says.

“Can stereotype threat explain the sex gap in mathematics performance and achievement?” will be published in the journal Review of General Psychology.


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