Are Boys Better at Math Than Girls? The True Reason for Math and Science Gender Inequality.

Are boys better at math than girls? The true reason for math and science gender inequality.
A review of:
Huguet, P. & Regner, I. (2009, in-press). Counter-stereotypic beliefs in math do not protect school girls from stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
by Lori-Lyn Gulley Boynton.

Stereotype Threat (ST) occurs when individuals perform at a lower level than their potential ability due to a perceived threat of confirming or disconfirming a negative stereotype about their group’s performance. ST has been found to effect female’s math performance, and spatial reasoning in the general population, thus contributing to a lack of female advancement in scientific careers (Ben-Zeev, Duncan, & Forbes, 2005; Cadinu, Maass, Rosabianca, & Kiesner, 2005; McGlone & Aronson, 2006).
Studies using samples of elementary and middle school students in the general population have also found that ST may influence girl’s performance by preventing them from performing at their optimal level (Ambady, Shih, Kim, & Pittinsky, 2001; Hyde and Lynn, 2006). When this occurs, studies fail to show a gender gap on math tests which may be severely misleading. Therefore, in elementary and middle school populations, ST may still be operating even if it is not reflected in a gender gap. When ST goes unrecognized, it can have detrimental effects on female students without anyone realizing it. Yet, the knowledge of negative stereotypes does not ensure that ST will be prevented.
Huguet & Regner (2009), designed a study with the assumption that girls who have counter-stereotypic beliefs may not be protected from ST. They included 199 middle-school students (92 girls and 107 boys) ranging from 11 to 13-years-old, from eight public schools in France. The students were all given a task that has been found to detect ST by integrating visual-perceptual and spatial skills, along with cognitive and meta-cognitive processes necessary for academic performance (Kirkwood, Weiler, Bernstein, Forbes, & Waber, 2001). All of the students were given the identical test, but some were informed that the test would measure their geometry ability, while others were told the test measured their drawing ability. After the test the students were given a questionnaire to assess their stereotypic-related beliefs including ratings of their own age group, self-evaluated ability, and their perceived importance.
Results indicated that girls who were told they were taking a geometry test performed significantly worse than when they were informed it was a drawing test; whereas the boys performed the same in both conditions. They also found that girls scored higher than boys when the test was labeled as drawing, but they scored significantly worse than boys when the test was labeled geometry. When measuring the girl’s beliefs about gender and geometry ability, girl’s beliefs were counter-stereotypic on average. For self-evaluations the girls underestimated their ability in geometry, even though they had similar geometry grades compared to boys in their class, and held counter-stereotypic beliefs. These results are consistent with the researcher’s hypothesis that counter-stereotypic beliefs do not protect against ST. The finding that the girls scored significantly better when the test was labeled as drawing indicates that the girls were not performing at their potential when the test was labeled geometry.
Huguet & Regner (2009) conclude that their study serves as evidence that ST may not be visible; therefore it is important for teachers, parents, and policy makers to focus on ST interventions regardless of gender gaps to increase gender equality in math and science.

To cite this review, please use this reference: Boynton, L. G. (2009). Are boys better at math than girls? The true reason for math and science gender inequality. Psychology Alert (3).