A man and a woman sit down to take a challenging math test. They both want to do well, and are nervous, but the woman is especially flustered and experiences an increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and other symptoms of stress. She may not be fully aware of it, but it is possible that she is feeling an added pressure to disprove the stereotype that women do poorly in math, which may actually hurt her performance. This phenomenon, known as “stereotype threat” ( ) is thought to decrease women’s math performance in comparison to that of men because they worry about confirming the stereotype that women are bad at math (Spencer, 1999). Past studies have consistently show that when women are reminded of their gender in some way before taking a math test they are more likely to experience negative thoughts, increased arousal and emotional processing that interferes with the area of the brain that works with math and problem solving (Krendl, Richeson, Kelley, & Heatherton, 2008) and inhibits the working memory (Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008), all of which lead to a decline in math performance. Women who are not reminded of their gender before taking math tests do not experience these effects as strongly. A recent study carried out in France, however, shows that middle school students are demonstrating opposite effects.
The French study (Martinot, & Désert, 2007) examined whether or not fourth and seventh graders were aware of the stereotype that boys are better at math than girls and how the students perceived their own math abilities. The link between these perceptions was also evaluated. One hundred and two girls and 113 boys from rural and urban schools filled out questionnaires that asked them about the value of math grades, self-esteem, and perception of their own performance. Half of the students were also questioned about gender identification to make their gender salient. As the researchers anticipated, neither age group expressed awareness of the existence of the stereotype, but it did come as a surprise that girls in both age groups perceived that girls would perform better in math than boys when gender was made salient, and seventh grade boys generally reported that they believed that girls were better at math.
These data imply that around the age of twelve, French girls start to perceive themselves as higher performers in math, and boys begin to share this belief, as well as loose confidence in their own math ability. This contrasts with research that indicates that American girls face stereotype threat and therefore believe that their math performance is inferior to that of men (Spencer, et al. 1999). This shift correlates with increasing male underachievement in France (PISA 2001, 2003), as well as increasing gender equality (Else-Quest, Hyde, & Linn, 2010) (represented through having more women present in schools, the work force, etc.). This study is limited in that it only studies a small sample of French children and does not examine whether or not these perceptions remain as students age. It does, however, indicate possible changing trends in gender perception in relation to math performance and suggests that because boys in France are beginning to lower their self-perceptions in relation to math they may need help in improving the confidence with which they approach work.
Although there is a higher presence of women in the work force and more females are currently enrolled in higher education than males it does not appear that this transition is taking place in the U.S., as studies conducted in America show that girls as young as five demonstrate growing awareness of the stereotype held against women in math, which may contribute to why more advanced degrees in mathematical fields are still awarded to men (Cavanagh, 2008).
Cavanagh, S. (2008, Aug 27). Stereotype of mathematical inferiority still plagues girls. Education Week, 28(1), 9-9.
Else-Quest, N. M., Hyde, J. S., & Linn, M. C. (2010, January). Cross-national patterns of gender differences in mathematics: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Vol. 136(1), 103-127.
Krendl, A.C., Richeson, J.A., Kelley, W.M., & Heatherton, T.F. (2008, February). The Negative Consequences of Threat: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Investigation of the Neural Mechanisms Underlying Women’s Underperformance in Math. Psychological Science. Vol. 19 No. 2 168-175.
Martinot, D., & Désert, M. (2007). Awareness of a gender stereotype, personal beliefs and self-perceptions regarding math ability: When boys do not surpass girls. Social Psychology of Education, 10(4), 455-471.
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Programme for International Student Assessment (OECD PISA) (2001 and 2003). http://www.pisa.oecd.org
Schmader, T., Johns, M., & Forbes, C. (2008). An integrated process model of stereotype threat effects on performance. Psychological Review, 115(2), 336-356.
Spencer, S., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Under suspicion of inability: Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4–28.
Steele, Claude M. (1997, June). A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance. American Psychologist. Volume 52(6), p. 613-629. http://www.brynmawr.edu/diversitycouncil/documents/SteeleATITA.pdf