College women perform 9 percentage points lower on math tests taken in settings where they are in the minority than do those tested in single-sex environments, according to researchers at New York University and San Francisco State University.
The study, which explored the impact of stereotypes of women as less competent than men in math, will be published in the Dec. 1 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Educational Psychology.
The study’s authors also found that the differences in performance remain even when women know that no one else will see their test scores. According to the researchers, these results indicate that when outnumbered by men, women’s academic performance may be negatively influenced even when not engaging in overtly public activities, such as speaking up in class or participating in group projects.
“Our results show that privacy cannot armor students from the assaults posed on them by stereotypes or by being outnumbered,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Michael Inzlicht, a post-doctoral research scientist at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education. “Even when they knew their math scores would not be revealed, women who were outnumbered by men while taking the test got fewer items correct than did women who took the test in a single-sex environment.”
Inzlicht, a researcher in the Steinhardt School’s Department of Applied Psychology, said that the results may also shed new light on the impact of stereotype threat, a condition in which individuals under-perform because of worries about being negatively stereotyped.
“Previous research shows that the fear of being stereotyped in a public setting can diminish one’s potential, essentially allowing stereotypes to be fulfilled inadvertently,” he said. “Our findings suggest the impact of this fear is much broader: being in the minority is detrimental to intellectual achievement even if others are unaware of how stigmatized groups are performing.”
In their study, Inzlicht and Dr. Talia Ben-Zeev, an assistant professor at San Francisco State’s Department of Psychology, used female and male undergraduate students at Brown University. The study’s subjects took a difficult 20-item math test. Each female subject took the test in the same room with two others-either two other women or two men. To make distinctions between public reporting of math scores and keeping the results private, some subjects were told that their test scores would be reported to other members of the group while others were asked to place their answers in an envelope that bore no identifying information and to seal the envelope.
Under both public and private conditions, the average scores for women taking the test with two other men was 34 percent, whereas the scores for women taking it in single-sex environments was 43 percent. The scores include penalties for incorrect answers. The differences were statistically significant. To ensure that performance was not due to differences in ability, the researchers pre-tested mathematical aptitude and found no significant differences among the subjects.
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