Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Women, Math, and the Addition of Stereotypes

• April 14, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Do women often perform less well at higher math because of the stereotype that they have less ability than men, or is there another reason for the achievement gap?

Women and math have a checkered history in the popular imagination.

Remember the Barbie doll that said “Math class is tough”? Mattel removed that phrase from the doll’s repertoire in 1992 after an uproar from women’s groups. Thirteen years later, Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard University, suggested that women may be “innately less able to succeed in math and science careers” and later apologized for those remarks, although he eventually resigned his post.

The debate gained new life in January when University of Leeds psychologist Gijsbert Stoet and University of Missouri psychologist David C. Geary published a meta-analysis of nine studies arguing that the stereotype of women being poor at math did not explain a gender gap in higher math achievement. Evidence of such a causal relationship “is weak at best,” they concluded in the Review of General Psychology. (Here’s a video of Stoet explaining their thesis.)

Their study led them to conclude that the wrong problem is being addressed, that programs devoted to erasing “stereotype threat” do more harm than good by allocating resources to a nonexistent problem. That outcome “really irritate(s) me,” Geary said, because redressing this gender gap is important “for our economy and for our future.”

Egged on by a press release that went further than Stoet and Geary’s study, media outlets in the U.S., Europe, and Asia trumpeted their research as “debunking” the theory that gender stereotyping and math achievement are related, even though the researchers themselves acknowledge such stereotyping may harm some women.

But their paper and the hoopla surrounding it stirred up other psychologists who have spent decades studying stereotyping. That larger camp points to a 2008 meta-analysis of the research on stereotype threat that examined 72 studies and found strong effects of stereotype threat on women’s higher level math performance.

Stoet and Geary did not examine programs that have improved women’s science, technology, engineering, and math performance by addressing women’s own doubt in their innate ability. “That’s the most important piece,” said social psychologist Claude M. Steele. “When you do something in the real world you get real meaningful improvement.

Steele’s 1999 study with University of Waterloo social psychologist Steven Spencer launched the theory that belittling women’s ability, called “stereotype threat,” can affect women’s math performance, particularly when doing difficult, high-level math.  (His book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us appeared in 2010.)

Steele, who has also published extensively on the effect of stereotype threat on black students, criticizes the methods used in Stoet and Geary’s paper. “I cannot imagine how this got published. I’ve never seen such a manipulative work in all my years in science,” said the former provost of Columbia University and now the dean of Stanford University’s School of Education at Stanford University. “It’s astonishing.”

Geary and Stoet began their analysis by looking at 141 studies, but eliminated most of those for various methodological and statistical reasons, concluding those that remained demonstrated “little to no significant stereotype theory effect.” Because they included only nine of the published studies on stereotype threat, for his part Steele sees that as “good evidence of their manipulation of the data set to produce the result they want to produce.” 

While Stoet and Geary excluded any studies that used covariant analysis – in this case, adjustment for performance on previous mathematics tests — Spencer countered that even without that correction, the studies still show variance between women affected by stereotype ideas and those not affected, regardless of initial differences. Stoet and Geary also left unpublished studies out of their meta-analysis, and Steele noted not only that  that such “file-drawer” articles most often fail to replicate the original study, but also that  good meta-analyzers contact “everybody in the field” and hound them for their unpublished work.

Geary replied that it is “very difficult” to find unpublished studies.

One brain study showed that women who were not told, “Research has shown gender difference is math ability and performance” before doing math problems showed heightened brain activity in the neural networks associated with mathematical learning. But women who did receive this message showed no activation in those networks, but did show increased activity in a part of the brain associated with social and emotional processing.

Stoet and Geary excluded this brain study from their meta-analysis and all others that didn’t test men as well as women. “Our goal was to examine studies that were able to replicate the original study [i.e. Steele’s], which (correctly so) included both men and women,” says Geary. “Our focus was on the replicability of the most basic design.” They determined that only 20 of the 141 studies replicated the original study.

Their critics, such as Steele, argue that exact replications are not necessary for scientific proof, and furthermore that similar — but not exactly the same — studies do support the impact of stereotype threat. Because the initial 1999 research and more than 10 subsequent studies found that telling men about gender differences didn’t affect their math performance, Steele said, researchers stopped including men in their studies and concentrated on women. 

“Once research shows a result multiple times,” Steele explains, “you don’t have to keep showing it in every new experiment. Research literature matures and moves on to the next most important question.”

“If you just want to know whether removing stereotypes improves women’s performance,” adds Spencer, “you don’t have to compare them to men.”

However, Geary says the original findings that included men have not been “solidly replicated.” Plus, he added, “no one has tested the possibility that if you tell men they won’t do well on [a] math test, their performance drops.” Participants in those studies later said they assumed, however, that “gender differences” meant that men did better than women. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own (and Steele and Spencer quoted in their study),“There was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually.”

Do biological differences between men’s and women’s brains help account for the gender gap in higher-level math, a conclusion Steele believes that Geary and Stoet wish to bolster? “I have argued that the differences in some (not all) areas of math may be related to more basic differences between men and women,” said Geary, “but, at the same time, I have argued that the [achievement] gap can nevertheless be closed with targeted intervention (e.g. teaching girls and women to spatially diagram math word problems.)”

Focusing on stereotype threat will prevent such interventions, he argued.

Innate differences between men and women exist not only in math, Geary said. “There are clearly many biological differences between men and women,” he said, “and math is probably one of those domains in which the biology is of lower importance.”

Steele and Spencer, along with Diane Quinn of the University of Connecticut, have crafted a response to Stoet and Geary’s paper and submitted it to the Review of General Psychology.

Kathy Seal
Kathy Seal is a journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Carnegie Reporter. Co-author of two books — Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (Holt, 2001) and Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids (Prometheus, 2008 ) — she speaks frequently at schools on motivating children to learn. She is now at work on a memoir.

More From Kathy Seal

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.