Doubts Cast On Popular Theory Explaining Gender Differences In Math
January 19, 2012

Doubts Cast On Popular Theory Explaining Gender Differences In Math

A new study calls into question whether a popular theory behind the dearth of women in mathematic fields is accurate, concluding that the theory had major methodological flaws, utilized improper statistical techniques, and lacked scientific evidence of the stereotype that “men are better at math.”

The theory, known as the “stereotype threat”, was first published in 1999 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. It postulates that women are worse than men in math skills due to stereotypes that cause females to develop poor self images with respect to their math abilities.  This lack of confidence, in turn, undermines women´s math performance, according to the theory.

“The stereotype theory really was adopted by psychologists and policy makers around the world as the final word, with the idea that eliminating the stereotype could eliminate the gender gap,” said lead researcher David Geary, Curators Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science.

“However, even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem continued.  We now believe the wrong problem is being addressed.”

Geary and Giljsbert Stoet from the University of Leeds in Britain, examined 20 influential replications of the original “stereotype threat” theory, and found that many had serious scientific flaws, including a lack of a male control group and improperly applied statistical techniques.

“We were surprised the researchers did not subject males to the same experimental manipulations as female participants,” Geary said.

“It is reasonable to think that men also would not do well if told ℠men normally do worse on this test´ right before they take the test. When we adjusted the findings based on this and other statistical factors, we found little to no significant stereotype theory effect.”

The researchers believe that basing interventions on the stereotype threat is actually doing more harm than good, as critical resources are being dedicated to an issue that does not exist.

“These findings really irritate me, as a psychologist, because this is a science where we are really trying to discover what the issues are,” Geary said.

“The fact is there are still a disproportionate number of men in top levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need more women to succeed in these fields for our economy and for our future.”

Geary´s study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Review of General Psychology.


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