Math stereotype disproven by MU researcher

Professor David Greary found a stereotype theory does not affect math skill.

A review done by an MU researcher disproves the theory that telling women they are worse at math than men makes them perform worse in the subject.

Curators' professor of psychological sciences David Geary and Gijsbert Stoet, from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, reviewed 20 replications of a 1999 study in which the theory of stereotype threat was first introduced.

According to the theory of stereotype threat, women do worse in math because they are told men do better. The theory states women develop a poor self-image that leads to underachievement, according to an MU news release.

In these studies women and men were given math tests, one in which they were told men do better and one where they were not. The grades were then compared.

“We looked at those studies and we found that about half the time, there was no effect, meaning that if you remind women of this threat, it doesn’t affect their performance,” Geary said.

Geary said he was interested in doing this study due to the disproportionate number of men and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and the stereotype explanation that many assume is the primary cause of this sex difference.

“If we look at average math scores, there’s not a big difference between boys and girls and men and women,” he said. “If we look at the low end performance, say the bottom 5 percent or 1 percent, there’s more boys and men than girls and women. And if you look at the top levels of performance there’s more boys and men than girls and women. A lot of people have been concerned about the underrepresentation of women in the top end of math achievements.”

Assistant professor of sociology Rebecca Scott said messages received in childhood have a larger impact on the lack of women in STEM fields than stereotype threat.

“They constantly get messages from the culture that they’re not supposed to be good at math and science,” Scott said. “Boys are constantly shown playing with toys that are more spatial — like LEGO are marketed specifically to boys, tinker toys, erector sets. Whatever kinds of spatial-reasoning oriented toys are always marketed to boys where girls are focused more on baby dolls and beauty.”

Freshman Grace Cutler said she has not had to fight the stereotype that women are worse in math. She said her female friends are often better at it than male friends.

“As girls we’re expect to be smart,” she said. “Guys always come to us for advice.”

Geary said he hopes this study allows people to focus on bigger issues in this area.

“The focus on changing stereotypes or making women immune to such stereotypes is probably making things worse because it is not addressing the real problem,” he said. “If you think you have a problem (and) it’s caused by A, you put all your efforts into changing A. When the real problem is C or D then you’re going to ensure that nothing changes.”

Geary said more focus should be placed on better mathematics education for both men and women at a high school level.

“There (are) not enough women, and there (are) not enough men with a strong enough mathematics background at the end of high school to go into math intensive fields,” he said. “The preparation of both men and women up through and entry into college mathematics is just poor both in the U.S. and in Britain.”

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