The Washington Post

‘Math is for boys’ stereotype still alive

By second grade, girls and boys express the stereotype that “math is for boys” but not for girls, a new study shows in a finding that may help explain why fewer females enter math and science careers than boys.

The conclusions of the University of Washington study, entitled, “Math-Gender Stereotypes in Elementary School Children, come at a time when scores on math standardized tests have been evening out in elementary school as well as in high school and college.

Yet while women make up more than half the American workforce they still hold significantly fewer jobs in math and science fields, a 2010 study by the Association of American University Women shows.

The question, then, is why young women don’t enter math and science careers with the same consistency as males when they do, on average, as well or better than young men in class and on tests.

The answer, according to my colleague Shankar Vedantam, who wrote last month about the issue, may revolve around stereotype, or, how much an individual’s internal feelings about whether a particular field is for them affects the career they ultimately choose.

According to the new study, conducted by a team of University of Washington researchers led by Dario Cvencek and published in the March/April issue of Child Development, suggests that girls’ lack of interest in mathematics may come from culturally-communicated messages about math being more appropriate for boys than for girls.

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.

Decades of research have shown that the stereotype exists in the United States (Cvencek noted that it did not exist in the former Yugoslavia, where he was born and raised).

But the report says that previous investigations of children’s math-ender stereotype and math self-concept largely focused on self-report measures anthat asked children how good they thought they were at a specific task or how much they like it, which conflates the notion self-concept and self-esteem.

Cvencek and his co-authors assesed instead how strongly a child associates him/herself with math, and adapted for use with children an adult test used in social pscyhology that does not involve self-reporting.

The researchers studied 247 children in grades 1 through 5 in the Seattle-area and concluded that as early as second grade, the children clearly showed that boys associated math with their own gender while girls associated math with boys even before differences in math achievement emerge.

This is important, the report says, because “children have reduced interest in future academic courses and occupations that are incompatible with their academic self-concept.”

The authors of the report recommend that parents and schools work to enhance girls’ self-concepts for math in elementary school, when youngsters are already developing ideas about who math is “for.”


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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