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Study: stereotypes alone can hurt female performance

May 28, 2007
Courtesy University of Chicago
and World Science staff

A pop­u­lar ster­e­o­type that boys are bet­ter at math than girls causes anx­i­e­ty in girls that un­der­mines their per­for­mance—both in math and in oth­er ar­eas, re­search­ers have found.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors found that the wor­ry­ing un­der­mines wom­en’s work­ing, or short-term, mem­o­ry, the type needed to ac­tively jug­gle in­forma­t­ion in the head. The re­sult­ing dis­trac­tion can al­so hind­er suc­cess in oth­er ac­a­dem­ic ar­eas be­cause men­tal abil­i­ties don’t im­me­di­ately re­bound af­ter be­ing com­pro­mised by math anx­i­e­ty, re­search­ers said.

The widespread belief that girls don't do as well as boys at math, by it­self, hurts per­for­mance, re­search­ers say.


“This may mean that if a girl takes a ver­bal por­tion of a stand­ard­ized test af­ter tak­ing the math­e­mat­ics por­tion, she may not do as well on the ver­bal por­tion as she might do if she had not been re­cently strug­gling with math-related wor­ries,” said Si­an Beilock of the Un­ivers­ity of Chi­ca­go, lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor in the study.

“If a girl has a math­e­mat­ics class first thing in the morn­ing and ex­pe­ri­ences math-related wor­ries in this class, these wor­ries may car­ry im­plica­t­ions for her per­for­mance in the class she at­tends next.” The find­ings ap­pear in the cur­rent is­sue of The Jour­nal of Ex­pe­ri­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy: Gen­er­al

Re­search­ers have known that ster­e­o­types can un­der­mine school achieve­ment, but few stud­ies had ex­am­ined the spe­cif­ic men­tal pro­cesses be­hind this. Bei­lock and col­leagues pick­ed a group of col­lege wom­en who gen­er­ally did well in math, and ran­domly as­signed them to two groups. One set was told that they were be­ing tested to see why men tend to out­per­form wom­en in math; the oth­er was told simply that they were part of an ex­pe­ri­ment on math per­for­mance.

The message that men outdo women in math slashed test scores, sci­en­tists re­ported. The ac­cu­ra­cy of the ster­e­o­type-ex­posed wom­en dropped from nearly 90 per­cent in a pre-test to about 80 per­cent af­ter the dis­cour­ag­ing mes­sage. Among wom­en not re­ceiv­ing that mes­sage, per­for­mance ac­tu­ally im­proved slight­ly.

The re­search­ers asked the wom­en ex­posed to the ster­e­o­typ­ical mes­sage what they were think­ing dur­ing the tests. Many re­ported be­ing dis­tract­ed by thoughts such as “I thought about how boys are usu­ally bet­ter than girls at math so I was try­ing harder not to make mis­takes” and “I was nerv­ous in the last set be­cause I found out that the study is to com­pare math­e­mat­i­cal abil­i­ties of guys and girls.” 

Wom­en not ex­posed to ster­e­o­types had few­er such wor­ries, the sci­en­tists re­ported. Fur­ther tests in­di­cat­ed that the ver­bal work­ing mem­o­ry was the por­tion of the wom­en’s men­tal re­sources most strongly un­der­mined by the anx­i­e­ty. The sci­en­tists al­so found that wom­en suf­fer­ing math anx­i­e­ty found it harder to do prob­lems when they were writ­ten out hor­i­zon­tally than when they ap­peared ver­tic­al­ly. Pre­vi­ous find­ings had sug­gested that solv­ing hor­i­zon­tal prob­lems re­lies heavily on ver­bal re­sources.


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A popular stereotype that boys are better at math than girls causes anxiety in girls that undermines their performance—both in math and in other areas, researchers have found. Investigators found that the worrying undermines women’s working, or short-term memory memory, the type of memory needed to actively juggle information in the head. The resulting distraction can also hinder success in other academic areas because mental abilities don’t immediately rebound after being compromised by math anxiety, researchers said. “This may mean that if a girl takes a verbal portion of a standardized test after taking the mathematics portion, she may not do as well on the verbal portion as she might do if she had not been recently struggling with math-related worries,” said Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago, lead investigator. “If a girl has a mathematics class first thing in the morning and experiences math-related worries in this class, these worries may carry implications for her performance in the class she attends next,” she added. The findings appear in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Researchers have known that stereotypes can undermine school achievement, but few studies had examined the specific mental processes behind this. Beilock and colleagues picked a group of college women who did well in mathematics, and randomly assigned them to two groups. One set was told that they were being tested to see why men tend to outperform women in math; the other was told simply that they were part of an experiment on math performance. The information that men do better in mathematics than women undercut performance drastically, scientists reported. The accuracy of women exposed to the stereotype was reduced from nearly 90 percent in a pre-test to about 80 percent after being told men do better in mathematics. Among women not receiving that message, performance actually improved slightly. The researchers asked the women exposed to the stereotyping message what they were thinking during the tests and many of them reported being distracted by thoughts such as “I thought about how boys are usually better than girls at math so I was trying harder not to make mistakes” and “I was nervous in the last set because I found out that the study is to compare mathematical abilities of guys and girls.” Women not exposed to stereotyping had fewer such worries, the scientists reported. Further tests indicated that the verbal working memory was the portion of the women’s mental resources most strongly undermined by the anxiety. The scientists also found that women suffering math anxiety found it harder to do problems when they were written out horizontally than when they appeared vertically. Previous findings had suggested that solving horizontal problems relies heavily on verbal resources.