Math is not for girls: The stereotype begins early!

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

Imagine yourself an elementary school teacher. One of your female students fails to complete an arithmetic assignment and offers an excuse that ‘‘Girls don’t do math.’’ What might be a pretext for avoiding homework could also be the outcome of social-cognitive development. Combining cultural stereotypes (‘‘Math is for boys’’) with the knowledge about one’s own gender identity (‘‘I am a girl’’) to influence one’s self-concept (‘‘Math is not for me’’) reflects the tendency to achieve what social psychologists (Heider, 1946) call cognitive balance.

What you just read is how Dario Cvencek and his colleagues at the University of Washington introduced a provocative study recently published in the prestigious journal Child Development. In the study, the authors wanted to know whether elementary school children, some as young as first graders, already hold on to the stereotype that girls dont do math. Research has shown that in the US both adults and older children believe that math is a male activity and this stereotype is believed to be responsible for the gender gap that exists in math achievement (that males tend to outperform females in math).

The researchers wanted to go beyond simply asking kids whether they thought math was for boys, which is called explicit stereotypes. Instead, the study examined whether kids held implicit stereotypes, or ideas about gender and math that are held without conscious awareness. To test this idea, the researchers conducted an experiment called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures how much we associate concepts without knowing, or without being explicitly aware that we do, such as associating math with boys.

The experiment worked this way: Using a computer screen, a child is presented with words in the middle of the screen and he/she is asked to sort into a left or right pile by clicking a left or right arrow. First the child is asked to sort names based on whether they are boy (left) or girl (right) names. Then the child is asked to sort words based on whether the words are math words (addition, number, math), or reading words (read, book, letters). Then the task becomes more difficult because the child is presented with both names and math/reading words and is asked to sort all words. In one condition the child is asked to sort all boy names AND math words to the left, and all girl names AND reading words to the right (picture A in the figure below). In another condition the child is asked the boy names and the reading words to the left, and the girl names and math words to the right (picture B below).

The idea behind this experiment is that if you have an implicit stereotype that associates math with boys then you would be much faster when sorting words in condition A than when sorting words in condition B. That is, if you think that boys go with math then it is confusing to sort math words to the side that says girls because that is inconsistent with your stereotype. In that case you would be slower than when sorting math words to the side that says boys.

The results:

The important finding in the graph above is the middle section. Boys were faster when sorting math words and boy names to the same pile than when sorting math words and girl names into the same pile. Likewise, girls were faster when sorting math words and boy names into the same pile than when sorting math words and girl names into the same pile. Both boys and girls showed a clear gender stereotype in that it is easier for them to link the concepts of boys and math than it is to link the concepts girls and math.

One final result is worth noting. The researchers found that this effect was noticeable since 1st and 2nd grade! This is important because gender differences in math are not seen that early (girls perform just as well as boy at those grades). This suggests that the stereotype is not simply a reflection of actual performance but comes from socialization process that starts very early. For example, studies have shown that mothers tend to underestimate the math abilities of their elementary school daughters and overestimate the abilities of their sons, and this has a major impact on their kids perception of how good they are at math.

The reference:
Dario Cvencek, Andrew N. Meltzoff, & Anthony G. Greenwald (2011). Math–Gender Stereotypes in Elementary School Children Child Development