Why Do Girls Underperform in Math? (and Other Ways Stereotypes Threaten Our Students)

By Cindy Chanin On January 21, 2014

The Math Gender Gap

Rainbow’s winter SAT workshop is well underway, and in every cohort we tend to have several extremely bright young women who are anxious about the math sections of the test. This, unfortunately, is not out of the ordinary, as College Board data shows that girls routinely perform an average of 32 points below their male peers on the math sections of the test. This gender gap has persisted for over 5 decades, and has shown little to no improvement in that time. However, after many years of tutoring males and females of all ages across the mathematical divide—transversing everything from arithmetic fundamentals to geometry proofs to ACT trigonometry and implicit differentiation in AP-Calculus BC—I have found that girls are no less intelligent or any less quantitatively inclined than boys. So, what’s the deal?

Discovering Stereotype Threat
In an attempt to find resources to serve and empower my female math students, I discovered the work of Claude Steele, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford. His work, summarized in the video lecture above, shows the degree to which our social identities (e.g., gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, disability status, etc.) impact our academic performance — but not in the ways one might think. In short, Steele explains that students who are threatened with a negative stereotype about their social group (i.e. the insidious belief that girls are not good at math) tend to underperform. The negative effects prove all the more heightened when the student feels very invested in his/her success and wants to do well, as is the case with the SAT. However, in an experimental group, when female students were told that women did as well as men on a specific math test, they performed on par with their male counterparts, thus diminishing the effect of the negative stereotype. Steele found that stereotype threat also has effects on a racial level when testing black and white students. When black students were told that the test they were about to take was an IQ test to be measured against white students, they underperformed. Conversely, when black students were told that the exact same test was a puzzle, and not a measure of intelligence, they outperformed white students by a wide margin. This shows that the stereotypes carry no substantial weight or merit: women are not worse than men at math, black students are not less intelligent than white students, etc.  Yet, it is in students’ blind acceptance of these stereotypes–the process by which they assimilate them into their self conceptions and identify themselves with such logic-defying limitations–that causes negative stereotypes to manifest in our reality. Students then find their academic performance hampered by FEAR, False Evidence Appearing Real, instead of goaded by the qualities that lend themselves to our success: be it curiosity, potential ability, and overriding confidence.
So, how do we account for the lower test scores that seem to reinforce such negative stereotypes? Steele attributes these effects to both our cultural understanding of negative stereotypes, and the stress one faces when engaging in a so-called “ability test.” Students who belong to stereotyped groups tend to attribute their frustration on difficult tasks to their group identity. These deeply-ingrained beliefs and the paralyzing anxiety that ensues counteract a student’s natural ability, producing a chain of biochemical events that  light-up regions of the brain associated with vigilance and suppress the frontal lobe. In feeling threatened, students succumb to the threat, ultimately impairing their cognitive ability and reinforcing a self-fulfilling prophecy about their inability to excel. This in turn shapes students’ academic confidence, often resulting in avoidance of an entire academic subject, which can have compounding effects, truly rendering many a student less equipped as the years go by. This phenomena speaks to several key issues. First, it shows the fallacy of standardized testing in determining one’s intelligence or ability, as well as the dangers of high stakes testing early in a child’s academic career. Second, it illuminates the negative effects of not only stereotypes but also institutionalized systems of oppression that perpetuate dominant narratives of marginalized group inferiority.

So How Do We Support Our Threatened Students?

1. Help Them Understand The Threat
As shown in Steele’s experiment, showing girls that it is normal and expected for them to perform on par with their male counterparts helps mitigate negative stereotype effects. We should also help all students understand what stereotypes are, how they are created/perpetuated, and how they are used to maintain hegemonic structures of power and dominance. In helping our students better understand the fallacy of stereotypes and in making them aware of how these stereotypes serve to suppress people and hinder opportunity, we can shift the paradigm and encourage students to strip away the beliefs that no longer serve them. We can encourage students to step into their power.

2. Provide Counternarratives & A Critical Mass
Have a young girl who thinks girls aren’t good at chemistry? A teenage boy who thinks his only value is as a defensive lineman? Providing real-life counternarratives serves as an easy way to dispel stereotypes and provide guidance for your student. Find ways to surround your student with mentors, tutors, and role models who share their threatened social identity but excel nonetheless. We must begin to teach young girls about the thousands of female mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and physicists that continue to help society advance. Likewise, our boys need to know about the thousands of male caretakers, healers, and creatives who express their masculinities in healthy, balanced ways. Also, for students who often find themselves in the minority, we can help them feel more supported and confident in their own ability to do well by finding social situations for students to be around a critical mass of others, like themselves, who are excelling.

3. Show Them You Believe In Them, So They Will Believe In Themselves
Another simple way to help students avoid the effects of stereotype threat is to provide them with challenging assignments and then give them positive, critical feedback. It may be difficult for a parent to do this, so you should enlist the help of a caring and knowledgeable educator to facilitate, as teens and pre-teens are much more receptive to outside criticism. Presenting a student with a challenge—letting him/her know that although it will be hard to complete, you believe he/she will excel—is a simple yet effective intervention.
Stereotype threat is particularly alarming when we look at the data from test scores and college major enrollment rates. As parents and educators, it is our responsibility to empower our students to close these gaps and increase diversity in nondiverse spaces. In the end, not only will our students benefit, but our society will also benefit as a whole.
So, what do you think? I would love to hear your feedback on the Rainbow EDU Facebook Page, via Twitter, or in the comments section below.