Trying to make sense of nonsense

Battle of the stereotypes: girls vs. maths

Picture by XKCD

The Dutch can come with some crazy ideas. Just in the last month, they’ve coined the ‘transfer accelerator’ – a slide that takes you down to the train platform so you don’t have throw yourself down the stairs in order to catch the train when you’re late – and had the rather audacious idea to build a 2 kilometre (±6,500 feet) high mountain to advance their chances of Olympic success in sports like skiing and bob sleighing. The monolith would also serve as a tourist attraction in the country whose highest hill now surmounts to a staggering 322 metres, just losing out to the Eiffel tower. However, not all their ideas are as entertaining as these two examples. Wim Kuipers, chairman of the board of Christian schools in Netherlands, which represents over 800,000 students, has suggested to separate boys and girls for some their classes, such as maths and languages.

Kuipers reasons that boys between the ages of 12 and 16 are, on average, lagging two years behind in brain development compared to girls. He stresses that he doesn’t see the benefit of completely separating boys from girls during their education, but language classes would be a good start, as “girls are often better at languages. If boys keep comparing themselves to girls in this subject, it could discourage them.” He also argues the opposite is true for maths, with boys having the upper hand at this particular subject. Kuipers’ ideas have found fertile ground at the Ministry of Education, as a spokesperson has deemed experiments on his plans ‘conceivable’.

While it is admirable for the Ministry to think of an experiment, it might just be worth looking into the theory and ideas behind Kuipers’ ideas before rushing off to the laboratory. Kuipers makes a lot of assumptions in his statement: he assumes the lag in boy’s brain development (if true) affects their school performance; that girls are better at languages while boys are better at maths and that boys (and maybe also girls, he is a bit vague here) compare themselves as a group to the other sex. While the brain development is a discussion in its own worth, his allegations of girls underperforming in maths and boys in languages are worth looking at in closer detail.

A lot of research has gone into these stereotypes of boys being good with numbers and girls having the advantage where words are the culprit. And for a large part, it does seem to be just that: stereotypes. Research using maths examinations has shown that there does appear to be a difference in average scores for maths for boys and girls, with boys scoring higher. However, this is largely due to something called ‘stereotype threat’: the experience of anxiety in a situation where a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group. This fear, or anxiety, is thought to be due to the constant fear of being viewed through the lens of the stereotype, to constantly having to fight against being stereotyped, and to the worry that any personal failure will be confirmation of the negative group stereotype. In the case of mats exams, it means that girls are afraid to get lower grades because, as girls, they are expected to score lower than boys.

A study conducted in the States (1) showed just that. For the study, male and female psychology students were asked to participate in a maths test. Before the actual test, they received a short brief on what the maths test was actually going to entail. However, in one of the groups, the researchers slipped in a line about girls consistently performing worse than boys in these sort of maths tests, that way creating a group that was exposed to stereotype threat. The results, shown in Figure 1, are quite striking: in the group that was told girls perform worse than boys (high stereotype threat, or ST), girls did just that. However, when the students were not reminded of any gender differences in maths abilities, they performed very similar (low ST group). Unfortunately, the researchers fail to mention exactly how precise their estimations of these different groups of students are (which probably says everything you need to know about how precise it exactly is), but with a limited number of participants (43 students, divided in 4 groups) it was going to be hard to find a real difference anyway. A more interesting find is the stress reaction they measured in girls in the high ST group.

As excruciating as a maths test can be on its own, the researchers went a step further in this experiment and hooked their participants up to a lot of devices to measure their stress and anxiety levels, or proxies thereof. And what do you know: girls in the high ST group had the largest increases in blood pressure and highest increases in skin temperature, both presumed to be indicating stress and/or anxiety experienced during the test, exactly what you might expect as a reaction to stereotype threat.

Figure 1: Number of questions answered right by boys and girls in the high and low stereotype threat (ST) groups (figure from Osborne (2007))

And that is just one study. There are numerous studies showing similar effects of gender stereotypes, or ethnicity-based stereotypes on results on school exams. Some go even further and show that stereotype threat can influence motivation and engagement with a subject such as maths (2). It is a real, and recognised effect that should be taken into account in maths teaching. A rigorous measure as separating girls and boys for maths classes, confirming the stereotype that girls don’t measure up to boys when it comes to number crunching, will thus not only fail to reach its intended effect of improving education, but it will also discourage girls from choosing a career path in which they are already underrepresented. Instead of discouraging girls from taking maths, and boys from exploring the riches of languages, we should aim to stimulate students regardless of their gender.


1.              Osborne JW. Linking Stereotype Threat and Anxiety. Educational Psychology. 2007 Feb;27(1):135–54.

2.              Smith J, Sansone C, White P. The stereotyped task engagement process: The role of interest and achievement motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology. 2007 Feb;99(1):99–114.


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