Helping Girls Like Math Is Not The Same As Helping Them To Do Well

Illustration for article titled Helping Girls Like Math Is Not The Same As Helping Them To Do Well

In education circles, there has been a lot of concern about women and math.

On the positive side, there are no clear differences in the performance of boys and girls in math classes up through the end of high school. On the negative side, once women get to college, they tend to take fewer math classes and fewer classes in the math-heavy sciences than men.


There is also evidence that women sometimes perform more poorly on important tests of math achievement than they should given their ability. That is, their scores on these tests do not reflect their true ability, because of a phenomenon called stereotype threat. Stereotype threat was first described by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson in a 1995 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The basic idea is that if you are a member of a group that is the subject of a negative stereotype, then your concern about showing that stereotype to be valid can harm your performance. So, women who are aware of the stereotype—women are worse at math than men—do poorly on math tests.

Stereotype threat has been an important area of research, and I have written about it before in this blog. One stream of work relating to stereotype threat tries to find ways to eliminate it. An interesting set of studies in that vein was presented by Chad Forbes and Toni Schmader in the November, 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They were particularly interested in the difference between women's attitudes about math and their beliefs in stereotypes about math performance. This issue is important, because it is possible that women are less likely than men to pursue math because they don't like it. It is also possible that they don't pursue math because they are concerned with doing poorly.

Forbes and Schmader designed procedures to change women's attitudes and beliefs about math (at least temporarily). To influence attitudes, they had people do a task in which they had to classify words. Some of the words were related to either math (like addition) or language (like paragraph). Participants had to press a button to classify the words. Other words were either positive or negative. Some participants had to press the same button to respond both to the math words and the positive words and to use a second button to respond to the language and negative words. A second group did it the opposite way (math and bad on one button and language and good on the other). Other research suggests that doing this task can give people a more positive attitude about the concept paired with good words.

Later in the experiment, participants were given the opportunity to work on different kinds of problems, and some of them were math problems. Participants could choose which problems to work on. Women in this study were more likely to choose to work on math problems when they were given the training that math is good than when given the training that math is bad. However, this training did not influence their performance on the problems. That is, they did not solve a higher percentage of the problems when trained to have a more positive attitude about math.

In another study, participants got training related to the stereotype about math. In this case, they classified items either as math-related or language-related or things that women are good at or that men are good at. The group that was trained to discount the stereotype used one button to respond both to things that women are good at and to math words and to use the other button to respond to things that men are good at and language words. A second group did the task the opposite way (women are good at and language words; men are good at and math words).

Later, the participants did math problems. In this case, women who were given training to help them discount the stereotype actually performed better on the later math test than those who got training that was consistent with the stereotype. The researchers also gave participants a test of their working memory capacity. Working memory is the kind of memory you need to use when you are solving problems. It refers to the amount of information you can keep in mind at once. In general, having more working memory is better than having less when solving math problems. Previous research by fellow PT blogger Sian Beilock and her colleagues has found that stereotype threat situations decrease people's working memory capacity. Forbes and Schmader found that the training to discount the stereotype increased women's working memory capacity.


There was a lot of detail here, so let me try to summarize. Improving women's attitude about math made them more likely to choose to do math problems, but not more likely to do better on those problems. In contrast, changing women's belief about the stereotype affected their performance on math problems, but not their willingness to do math.

These results suggest that if we want to increase the number of women who participate in math and science careers, it will be important to influence both attitudes about math and beliefs about stereotypes. The results of this study suggest that both are possible.


This piece originally appeared on the Psychology Today blog. Republushed with permisson. You may follow Art Markman, Ph.D. on Twitter.

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I found math to be difficult because I could not see the practical application for it. Like the x and y stuff. What in hell was x and why did I care? Or a cosign. Where am I going to use that? Whenever I asked I was never provided a reason. All of my math teachers were male (except one) and they seemed to except it as a logical formula that could be applied whenever required. They thought it was already reasonable. I sorta felt stupid for asking.

This is why I gravitated to things like english, biology, and history. It seemed realtable, concrete and tangible. The teachers, also, were far more open to discussion and making concepts clearer.

It wasn't like I ever sat in a math class where we actually talked about what we were learning and real ways to apply that. We never talked at all, it was always a walk through of the formula on the chalk board and a few independent exercises.

I just figured boys were better at math because they were more action oriented and could blindly follow instruction, while women were more curious and focused on parsing out messages, finding solutions and flexible in their ability to do so. Arts tends to lend itself to that kind of work method where math tends to be narrow and defined path.

Now that I'm a little older I think of math as a language and it should taught to students as such.