In a field study in the latest issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, women at the high end of math ability outperform their male counterparts on tests when the test is described as free of gender differences. The women performed as well as their male counterparts under normal testing conditions. The study, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, was conducted by Catherine Good, assistant professor of psychology, Baruch College, CUNY, and Joshua Aronson, professor of psychology, New York University.
Considerable research over the past decade has shown that women’s performances on math tests are compromised by stereotypes. In over 200 published experiments, females as young as first graders and as old as 22 have been found to perform worse on math tests whenever the testing environment cues them to think about their gender, a phenomenon named “stereotype threat” by the psychologists Claude Steele and Aronson in the mid 1990s.
“This research has always carried the positive message that stereotype threat could be overcome-and women’s test performance boosted-by small changes in the way tests were presented,” says Aronson, a professor of psychology at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “But critics of this research frequently tried to trivialize these findings by claiming that they were merely laboratory studies that said little about performance in the ‘real world,’ or that we weren’t talking about highly proficient mathematicians, who were immune to stereotypes. These findings should make the critics think again.”
The researchers asked male and female students enrolled in a fast-paced calculus course at a large public university to take a practice calculus test in preparation for an upcoming exam. The course was the most rigorous calculus class offered by the university and satisfied requirements for degrees in mathematics, engineering, and many of the natural sciences. One group of students in the study received the test under normal testing conditions; that is, they were informed that the test was designed to measure their math abilities and knowledge. Among these students, the women performed just as well as the men, reflecting the fact that these were high-performing women. The surprise came from the second group of students in the class, who took the test under the same instructions but who were additionally informed that the test was free of gender bias. The researchers found that the women in the no-gender-differences group outperformed all the other test-takers in this high-level math class, even the men.
“We now have really compelling evidence,” says, Aronson, “that women at the very highest levels of math ability are held back by cultural images that portray their math abilities as inferior to men’s. But it’s also clear that small changes by wise teachers and professors can help a lot. Furthermore, we know that stereotype threat is not some artificial laboratory phenomenon. It has real consequences for women who have extremely high abilities and who aspire to be scientists. While this study doesn’t prove that sex differences in math ability are not the root cause of the lack of women in math and science, it does prove that biology is far from the whole story.”
The researchers hope that their findings will encourage educators to be aware of the degree to which negative stereotypes contribute to the lack of women who succeed in high-level mathematics and to encourage gender-fair testing.
Reporters interested in reviewing a copy of the research paper can contact Tim Farrell in NYU’s Office of Public Affairs by phone at 212.998.6797 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.