Women and maths – the effect of stereotyping

18 11 2010

My attention was recently drawn to this fascinating study conducted over a decade ago now, although its findings seem to have been largely ignored.

The study at the University of Michigan, first looked at psychology students with fairly high levels of maths knowledge and skills. It was discovered that males outperformed females at difficult tests, whilst there was no difference in easier tests.

In the second part of the study, a 2 part test was conducted where half the participants were told that the questions in the first half were shown to produce gender differences, but the second half was not, and half the participants were told it was the other way around. Interestingly, the investigators discovered that where a gender difference was expected by participants, one existed, but was eliminated when they were not expecting an effect of gender.

These results were replicated in a less highly selected sample of students.

What I find most interesting is how this information is being used now, in the UK. If this ‘stereotype threat’ has the potential to impact upon performance in exams, how is this translating to the classroom. Could it that the reports every year that girls do better in school exams than boys may in fact be a self-fulfilling prophecy?