Girls and math phobia

20 Jan

Many students have difficulty with math. Sarah D. Sparks reported in the Education Week article, Study Helps Pinpont Math Disability

Burgeoning research into students’ difficulties with mathematics is starting to tease out cognitive differences between students who sometimes struggle with math and those who have dyscalculia, a severe, persistent learning disability in math.

A new, decade-long longitudinal study by researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, published Friday in the journal Child Development, finds that 9th-graders considered dyscalculic—those who performed in the bottom 10 percent of math ability on multiple tests—had substantially lower ability to grasp and compare basic number quantities than average students or even other struggling math students….

There is a persistent myth that girls have difficulty with math because of self-esteem issues regarding the study of math.

The University of Missouri is reporting about a new study which examines past research regrading women and math. Here is an excerpt from the press release:

A University of Missouri researcher and his colleague have conducted a review that casts doubt on the accuracy of a popular theory that attempted to explain why there are more men than women in top levels of mathematic fields. The researchers found that numerous studies claiming that the stereotype, “men are better at math” – believed to undermine women’s math performance – had major methodological flaws, utilized improper statistical techniques, and many studies had no scientific evidence of this stereotype.

This theory, called stereotype threat, was first published in 1999 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Essentially, the theory is that due to the stereotype that women are worse than men in math skills, females develop a poor self-image in this area, which leads to mathematics underachievement.

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,” said David Geary, Curators Professor of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science. “However, even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem continued. We now believe the wrong problem is being addressed.”

In the study, Geary and Gijsbert Stoet, from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, examined 20 influential replications of the original stereotype theory study. The researchers found that many subsequent studies had serious scientific flaws, including a lack of a male control group and improperly applied statistical techniques….

The researchers believe that basing interventions on the stereotype threat is actually doing more harm than good, as vital resources are being dedicated to a problem that does not exist.

These findings really irritate me, as a psychologist, because this is a science where we are really trying to discover what the issues are,” Geary said. “The fact is there are still a disproportionate number of men in top levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need more women to succeed in these fields for our economy and for our future.”

See, Math Gender Gap Not Result of Girls’ Low Self-Esteem, Researchers Say

Other studies have looked at the influence of gender on math performance.

Science Daily reported in the March 14, 2011 article, Gender Stereotypes About Math Develop As Early As the Second Grade

Children express the stereotype that mathematics is for boys, not for girls, as early as second grade, according to a new study by University of Washington researchers. And the children applied the stereotype to themselves: boys identified themselves with math whereas girls did not.

The “math is for boys” stereotype has been used as part of the explanation for why so few women pursue science, mathematics and engineering careers. The cultural stereotype may nudge girls to think that “math is not for me,” which can affect what activities they engage in and their career aspirations.

The new study, published in the March/April issue of Child Development, suggests that, for girls, lack of interest in mathematics may come from culturally-communicated messages about math being more appropriate for boys than for girls, the researchers said.

Here is the study citation:

Dario Cvencek, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Anthony G. Greenwald. Math-Gender Stereotypes in Elementary School Children. Child Development, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01529.x

John ChildUp has an excellent synopsis of the math study, Math Gender Stereotypes Start As Early As Second Grade at his ChildUp blog:

Some sobering news for parental foes of sex stereotypes: A new study reinforces the devastating impact stereotypes can have on girls when it comes to math.

Little boys may love their trains and toys, but as early as second grade they’re already showing prowess on the mathematical front, sending a subliminal message to their female classmates about expectations for math test scores and even potential career paths, according to a new study, “Today” reports.

Researchers at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington studied 247 American children between the ages of 6 and 10 and found that second grade boys identified with math more strongly than girls. The study was published in Wiley’s Child Development.

See, U.S. Teens Trail Peers Around World on Math-Science Test

It is important both for an individual student and the national competitiveness to have trained teachers and curriculum to advance the math education of all populations of students.

Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts.

– Albert Einstein

Contact information:

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

Story Contact:
Steven Adams,, 573 882-8353


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13 Responses to “Girls and math phobia”


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