Women, Math, and the Addition of Stereotypes - Miller-McCune
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.”