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Even the most empowered girls are more anxious about math than boys

(Patrick Semansky/AP)

Science can’t tell us why some teenagers relish calculus and others dread it. But a new study in the journal Plos One suggests that living in a country that values gender equality actually makes girls more susceptible to "math anxiety" relative to their male classmates.

Math anxiety — the urge to avoid numbers — plagues girls more than boys across the world, but the gender-difference is largest in economically developed nations that promote equality between the sexes, according to the study, led by researchers from the University of Missouri, the University of California at Irvine and the University of Glasgow.

The team of academics crunched data from more than 700,000 15-year-olds in 68 countries who took an international test called the Program for International Student Assessment in 2003 and 2012. They also measured the students’ distress by asking them to rate on a four-point scale how much they agreed with statements such as “I get very nervous doing mathematics problems” and “I feel helpless when doing a mathematics problem."

In general, teenagers in advanced countries (the United States, Sweden, France and Germany, to name a few) showed less math anxiety than those in developing economies, but the decline was much more significant for boys than for girls.

Even among top achievers, girls still reported more anxiety. When controlling for performance, the gender gap persisted — and strangely widened in countries with more women in the labor force.

The math anxiety gender gap could affect women's lifelong earning potential, the researchers noted.

“Individuals who report experiencing mathematics anxiety are more likely to disengage from practice with mathematical concepts and procedures, which could have negative long-term economic consequences for them, including fewer career prospects,” the authors wrote.

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Neuroimaging studies, they pointed out, have revealed the powerful brain response a geometry quiz can trigger. The anticipation of a math problem "is neurally equivalent to the anticipation of physical harm in adults.”

So, where does this fear come from — and why does it bug girls around the world, even those who appear to have a knack for math?

The authors can’t definitively say. The students’ parents’ professions had little to do with it, they concluded. After searching for patterns in the student data, the researchers ruled out the possibility that girls with, say, engineer mothers were less likely to experience math anxiety 

Other research has pointed to social conditioning. Math has long been considered a masculine subject across the globe, which may make female students feel inferior before they take their first lesson.

A 2015 OECD paper concluded this intimation might damage their ability to learn and excel: “Countries may be unable to develop a sufficient number of individuals with strong mathematics and science skills partly because of girls’ lack of confidence in their abilities.”

Parents might play a key role in establishing (or inhibiting) confidence.

The PISA tests asked students how much they agreed with statements like,  “Parents believe studying mathematics is important” and “Parents believe mathematics is important for career,” according to the Plos One study. Boys, it turned out, were more likely than girls to say their parents had taught them the value of math.

These results, though, should be interpreted cautiously. “Because girls express higher levels of anxiety about mathematics,” the authors wrote, “parents of girls may be more likely to devalue the importance of the domain in relation to their daughters than their sons, who show relatively less mathematics anxiety by comparison.”

More on Wonkblog:

How low self-esteem is killing girls' academic success

The real reason young women leave their jobs

For one group of women, the gender wage gap keeps growing