Negative images sap math test score

Study quantifies gender stereotype's impact on women

October 20, 2006|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,SUN REPORTER

Elizabeth Beer thought her high school nemesis was math. She took advanced courses, but it was the only subject in which straight A's eluded her.

Her real nemesis, she later concluded, might have been her math teacher, who dished out discouragement.

"He didn't think women belonged in math," recalls Beer, a third-year doctoral student in the Johns Hopkins University's applied mathematics and statistics department.

The teacher's message - that women are innately math-deficient - didn't keep Beer from succeeding in the subject in the long run, but it could explain her early struggles.

A study published today in the journal Science found that telling women that they are worse than men at math is enough to make them stumble on a math test, especially if they think the underlying reasons are genetic.

"The results don't speak to whether there is a real difference [between men and women], but show that just discussing it might make a difference," said Steven Heine, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and one of the study's authors.

The idea that stereotypes can impair or enhance a person's performance - a phenomenon known as "stereotype threat" - is nothing new, Heine said. It has been found, for example, that blacks can score worse on IQ tests when reminded that they are black, he said. Prior research found that women struggle with math tests when they're reminded of their gender.

But Heine and his co-author looked deeper into the nature of the stereotype that women aren't cut out for math. To do this, they asked 133 female college students to read different essays and then take math tests.

One essay claimed that scientific evidence showed that women were worse than men at math because of genetic differences. Another version also claimed aptitude differences but attributed the gap to lower teacher expectations for female students.

When the essay blamed the gender gap on teacher expectations, it had little impact on the women's math scores, the researchers found. When the math gap was attributed to genetics, however, the students' scores dropped by about 24 percent on average.

The results, Heine said, suggest that the stereotype is particularly powerful when attributed to genetic differences.

"Our research suggests that people do respond to these kinds of ideas," he said. "It urges scientists to be mindful about how their work is being communicated and understood."

He cites former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers as an example of the difficulties of communicating about the topic. In January 2005, Summers drew intense criticism after he questioned whether women's "intrinsic aptitude" might play a role in turning them away from careers in science and engineering. Summers later apologized for the comments.

Heine and his co-author, Ilan Dar-Nimrod, concluded Summers' statements "may inadvertently exacerbate the gender gap in science through stereotype threat."

The social pressures are often subtle. Ashley Grenier, 21, is a first-year graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park's A. James Clark School of Engineering, and her younger brother is an engineering undergraduate. She said when people learn that her brother is in engineering school, they say, "Wow, that's great."

But when they learn she is in engineering school, they say, "Wow! That's amazing!"

"People definitely see you differently," she said.

Linda Gottfredson, a professor at the University of Delaware's School of Education, said she was worried by the Canadian authors' warning to scientists about how they communicate their findings. Evidence suggests, she said, that genetics and environment interact to affect a person's behavior, interests and aptitudes.

`That's not an idea that would scandalize the average person," she said. "When you have kids it's obvious, you see how different they are."

She said telling scientists to "watch their tongues" might have a chilling effect on legitimate research into how genes help mold behaviors.

Gottfredson also questioned whether factors other than bias might steer women away from certain jobs. For example, she said, women tend to be attracted to more "people-oriented fields" such as education and medicine.

Indeed, women seem to shy away from engineering and math in college. Of students earning undergraduate degrees in engineering in 2001, only about 20 percent were women, according to the National Science Foundation. The same year, less than 40 percent of bachelor's degrees in math went to women.

To attract more women, some schools are trying to promote math-heavy fields as ways to help people, experts said.

The Clark School of Engineering, for example, has an outreach program for Girl Scouts that focuses on applications. "They learn what you can do to help people," said Page Smith, director of the school's Women in Engineering Program.

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