If you’re a female engineer and a mother of daughters, shouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that one or more of them will follow your career path and seek out a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field?
Apparently not, say researchers. A study published in the journal PLoS One this year indicates that although math anxiety is lower among teens in the developed world than elsewhere, girls have much higher math anxiety than boys. In a world where math literacy is increasingly more important, this is a troubling discovery.
Researchers from the University of Missouri, the University of California-Irvine and the University of Glasgow in Scotland analyzed data from more than 75,000 15-year-old students in 68 who participated in the Program for International Student Assessment. The researchers anticipated that in countries with more gender equality, the gaps between males and females in both math anxiety and math performance would narrow. The data proved them wrong.
“The patterns were exactly the opposite of what you would predict from social cultural theories of why you find sex-related differences,” said David Geary, a professor of neuroscience and psychological sciences at the University of Missouri and one of the authors of the study, in a statement.
It’s unfair that half of the population is missing out on interesting work and career opportunities because they are battling unconscious prejudices and stereotypes.
What the Data Shows About Girls and Their Fear of Math
The data showed that in countries where there was little equality between the sexes, math anxiety was high and math performance was low for both boys and girls. As gender equality improves, so does math performance; math anxiety declines for both sexes. However, girls’ anxiety doesn’t drop nearly as sharply as their male counterparts’ does.
The study results indicate that gender anxiety shows that in 59 per cent of the countries analyzed, gender anxiety differences between the sexes are more than twice the difference of their performance in mathematics. There are apparently more complex reasons for math anxiety than simply living in a society that offers women more freedom.
“When you looked at economically developed countries with good educational systems, you begin to see a gap where girls have more math anxiety than boys, Geary told the Huffington Post. “Even when researchers control for performance, girls “still have more math anxiety than they should.”
Study co-author Gijsbert Stoet, a psychologist from the University of Glasgow, told Science Daily “Policies to attract more girls and women into subjects such as computer science, physics and engineering have largely failed.”
“Gender equality is a key humanistic value in enlightened and developed societies, but our research shows that policy makers cannot rely on it as the sole factor in getting more girls into subjects like physics and computer science. It is fair to say that nobody knows what will actually attract more girls into these subjects. Policies and programs to change the gender balance in non-organic STEM subjects have just not worked.”
Parental Influence on Girls and Math Success
The researchers also found that even in countries with larger numbers of women working in STEM fields, this appeared to have no bearing on the math anxiety felt by teenage girls. However, when they reviewed data from a study that asked students about their parents’ attitudes toward math and another that asked parents about math, the researchers discovered that parents of girls considered math less important.
“Whether that directly contributes to math anxiety gap or is a reflection of that we don’t know,” Geary said in an interview with Quartz. “But it really is the wrong message for girls and women, particularly in a modern economy where everyone needs reasonably good math skills.”
In fact, in these developed countries, parents placed more emphasis on their sons’ development of mathematical skills than their daughters’. Knowing how easily and subtly youngsters are influenced by parental expectations; it is easy to understand where some of the girls’ anxiety may originate.
Damaging Stereotypes for Girls and Math Subjects
Allison Master, Sapna Cheryan and Andrew Meltzoff, three researchers from the University of Washington, believe that negative stereotypes play a large role in driving girls away from STEM fields. Their own research focuses on computer science, rather than on pure mathematics, but their findings might be of assistance to those seeking to understand why girls shy away from STEM subjects.
They showed pictures of two typical computer science classrooms to Seattle-area high school students. The first was stereotypical, decorated with “geeky” science fiction posters. The second defied stereotypes of the computer nerd with art and nature posters. Girls were three times more likely to want to study computer science when they saw the non-stereotypical classroom, while the environments didn’t matter to the boys’ interest.
“We need to redesign classrooms and change the media stories about computer science,” the researchers wrote in the Washington Post. “If we can show a broader picture of who belongs there, we can get more girls willing to give computer science a try.”
It’s certainly worth a try, as are any attempts to educate parents on the importance of math to the future success of both girls and boys. It’s unfair that half of the population is missing out on interesting work and career opportunities because they are battling unconscious prejudices and stereotypes.