Poor self-image cannot explain maths gender gap


Promoting more female role models is not the answer to closing the gender gap in maths, a new study suggests.

Studies showing that women's underachievement in maths is due to their own poor self-image are fundamentally flawed, according to psychologists Dr Gijsbert Stoet, from the University of Leeds, and Professor David Geary from the University of Missouri. Their findings suggest that recent strategies aimed at improving girls' performance in maths - which are based on these studies - are misguided and unlikely to work.

The low number of women in the top levels of mathematics-related fields has long been a topic of heated debate. One recent explanation, which has become popular with policy-makers, blames the widespread perception that men are inherently better at maths than women.

According to this theory, the stereotype of male mathematical dominance has led girls and women to under-rate their own abilities in maths. Crucially, the theory continues, this poor self-image is causing girls and women to underperform in maths. This explanation, termed 'stereotype threat' was originally proposed in 1999 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and was subsequently backed up by a number of additional studies.

However, Stoet and Geary are now questioning the strength of evidence in favour of 'stereotype threat'. On examining studies claiming to support the original work, they found that many had serious scientific flaws. These included a lack of any male subjects in the study - so no comparison could be made between the sexes - and incorrect use of statistical techniques when analysing the study results.

What's more, of the studies that appeared to follow a sound scientific method, two thirds failed to observe 'stereotype threat' at all.

"It is important that we find a good, scientific explanation for the gender gap in maths but I am really not convinced that anyone has done that yet," said Dr Gijsbert Stoet, researcher at the University of Leeds' Institute of Psychological Sciences.

"If the stereotype theory is correct, then it should be relatively easy to close the gender gap in maths: just eliminate the stereotype by promoting more female role models. It sounds almost too good to be true - and perhaps this is why psychologists and policy makers around the world have been so quick to embrace it, but as our work shows, the evidence in favour of this theory is actually quite weak," he said.

But lack of evidence is not the only problem, according to Stoet and Geary. Strategies aimed at tackling stereotype threat are actually doing more harm than good because vital resources are being dedicated to a problem that does not exist, they conclude.

"The stereotype theory really was adopted as the final word, but even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem has continued." said Professor David Geary, Curators Professor of Psychological Sciences in the Missouri University College of Arts and Science. "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."

The study, "Can stereotype threat explain the gender gap in mathematics performance and achievement?" is published in the journal Review of General Psychology.

For more information:

Contact: University of Leeds Press Office, +44 113 343 4031 or email pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk

Contact: Gijsbert Stoet, University of Leeds Institute of Psychological Sciences:  Tel: 0113 343 8579; email g.stoet@leeds.ac.uk

Further discussion of 'stereotype effect' and the study's findings can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJAOltce6jI

Notes to editors:

  1. Stoet G and Geary DC. Can stereotype threat explain the gender gap in mathematics performance and achievement? Review of General Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/a0026617 (PsycINFO ID: 201200560-001e).
  2. One of the UK's largest medical, health and bioscience research bases, the University of Leeds delivers world leading research in medical engineering, cancer, cardiovascular studies, epidemiology, molecular genetics, musculoskeletal medicine, dentistry, psychology and applied health. Treatments and initiatives developed in Leeds are transforming the lives of people worldwide with conditions such as diabetes, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/