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Mind the Gap: Who Falls Prey to the Math Gender Gap?

Are some girls more likely than others to fall prey to the math gender gap?

It has long been held that boys are better than girls at math, and this stereotype helps explain why women continue to lag behind men in the pursuit of math-related careers (e.g., mathematics, physics, engineering, natural sciences). Despite great strides that have been made in the last decade to eliminate the gender gap, it continues to persist.

Explanations for the math gender gap have varied from genetic to sociocultural. The genetic explanation suggests that women's math skills are naturally inferior to men's, and there are evolutionary explanations to suggest why this might be so (e.g., our male ancestors had to travel large distances for hunting and had to use their brains to calculate the trajectory of their spears). But the data do not entirely seem to support this argument - for example, in a 2008 study, Janet Hyde analyzed data collected from federally mandated annual math tests administered in the 11th grade and found a negligible difference between the girls' and boys' test scores. So, the gap seems to be less about what little girls have or don't have, and more about what they do with what they have. In light of this, the sociocultural explanation does seem to hold more weight. The stereotype that women's math skills are inferior to men's continues to permeate our modern world. In a society where not too long ago, Talking Barbie uttered the phrase "math is hard," what do we expect little girls and boys to think? But what about at the individual level? Even if our society continues to teach our girls that they aren't as good at math as boys, not all girls seem to buy into this belief. That leads us to an important question - are some girls more likely than others to fall prey to the math gender gap? If so, how can we identify them and how do we help them?

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In a recent study I conducted with my colleagues (Burkley, Parker, Stermer & Burkley, 2010), we set out to answer this exact question. We believed that one personality characteristic - the belief that traits are fixed or malleable - played a significant role in the gender gap issue. According to Carol Dweck's implicit theories model, people differ in their lay beliefs about the malleability of personal attributes. Some people, referred to as entity theorists, believe that traits are fixed - you are either born good at a trait or not and no amount of work will help you to improve. But others, referred to as incremental theorists, believe that traits are malleable - that traits and skills can be developed and improved upon through education and practice. Differences in these beliefs are important because they have been shown to strongly influence people's responses to failure. People with fixed beliefs respond more negatively to failure because they view it as confirmation of their lack of ability. After experiencing failure, they feel upset and depressed and as a result, are likely to give up. However, people with malleable beliefs view failure as the result of lack of effort and tend to respond to it with optimism and increased motivation (like Nietzsche's famous quote "what does not kill him makes him stronger"). Thus, fixed people are crushed under the weight of their failures but malleable people rise above them.

For my study, I was curious how differences in these beliefs may play a role in the math gender gap. So ask yourself this: Do you think that math geniuses were born with an innate ability to crunch numbers, or do you think that their skills were developed over a long period of time, through education, practice and repetition. If you belief the first assertion, than you likely perceive your math skills as fixed. If you believe the second assertion, than you likely perceive your math skills as malleable. In our study, we asked college-aged women a series of similar questions that assessed whether they thought their math skills were fixed or malleable. Next, we had these women take a math test and then told them all that they had performed poorly (essentially placing them in a math failure situation). Finally, we asked them a series of questions about how interested they were in the math domain. The results showed that women who believed their math skills were fixed: 1) showed less identification with the math domain (they felt their math skills were not an important part of their identity), 2) reported less enjoyment of math-related experiences, 3) indicated they were less likely to pursue a math major and 4) indicated they were less likely to pursue a math career after graduation, compared to women who believed their math skills were malleable. Thus, after experiencing a math failure, women who viewed their math ability as fixed appeared more likely to distance themselves from the math domain.

These results are important because they suggest the math gender gap may be primarily driven by a subset of women - those who believe their math ability is fixed and unchangeable. These results are also informative because they suggest new ways of attacking the math gender gap problem. First, if women who view their math skills as fixed are most susceptible to the gender gap, our attention and efforts should be primarily focused on this vulnerable population. We should try to identify young girls with this belief structure early in their academic careers, before failures and difficulties have set in. Second, school intervention programs should encourage girls to adopt a malleable view of their math skills. A similar program has already been developed to address the racial minority gap in academics (Aronson, Fried & Good, 2002). In their study, Aronson and colleagues created an intervention program to encourage African Americans to perceive their intelligence as malleable. This program emphasized the importance of education, presented research on how the brain creates new pathways when it learns, and highlighted famous scholars who were not at the top of their class when they were young but went on to be geniuses in their fields (e.g., Einstein). Black students who participated in this program reported enjoying and valuing academics more than Black students who did not participate. The results of our study suggest that a similar program, designed to specifically address beliefs about the malleability of math skills, could be used successfully to address the math gender gap.


But if you are not a teacher or school principle, what can you do to reduce the math gender gap? Well, think about how our children come to believe that their traits are fixed or malleable. Yes, some part of that belief system is influenced by society and by their experiences at school, but a large part of that belief system comes from their parents, their grandparents, and the other adults around them. Adults have their own beliefs about whether traits are fixed or malleable and they communicate this belief system in subtle ways to their children. One way that such beliefs are regularly communicated is through praise. As parents, we all like to praise our kids and we love to tell them how gifted and smart they are. In a recent survey by Columbia University, 85% of American parents think it is important to tell their kids they are smart. But such praise can backfire. In a seminal study by Carol Dweck, 5th graders completed an IQ test consisting of easy puzzles so that all the students would do well. After completing the puzzle, each student received a single line of praise - some were praised for their intelligence ("you must be smart at this") and others were praised for their effort ("you must have worked really hard"). Then the student was given a choice between two tests to complete in the second round. The first test was described as easy; the second was described as difficult, but they would learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. Of the children who were praised for their intelligence, most picked the easy test. That is, the one's labeled the "smart" kids simply copped-out. But of the children who were praised for their effort, most picked the challenging test. Why was this the case? According to Dweck, praising children for their intelligence communicates that this trait is fixed - that they were born inherently smart. So what's wrong with that? Well, children who think their intelligence is malleable have a sense of control over their success, but children who think their intelligence is fixed have no control. Whereas malleable children feel they can avoid failure by practicing and studying, fixed children feel the only way they can avoid failure is by picking easy tasks, and this is exactly what they do. Children labeled "smart" or "gifted" tend to coast and they come to see little value in studying or practicing their skills.

A great demonstration of this once happened in one of my classes. About a year ago, I was teaching my class about Carol Dweck's work and I had a student approach me after lecture with a question. She had a 10-year-old son who was an amazing basketball player but really struggled in school, especially when it came to his math class. At night, when they sat at the dinner table to do his math homework, he would try a problem, find it difficult, become frustrated and shove the papers away, proclaiming he "just wasn't good at this stuff." She said that during my lecture, she realized that she regularly praised her son for his "natural athletic ability" and wondered if this had anything to do with his issues in math. I told her that such beliefs can generalize - even though she was telling her son his basketball ability was fixed, he may assume that this means all of his abilities are fixed, including math. If so, than her young son had already come to the conclusion that he was born good at sports and born bad at math and there was nothing to be done to change either one of those skill sets. Armed with this new information, she went home that night and, along with her husband, made it a goal to only praise her son for his effort, on and off the basketball court. Two weeks later, she came up after lecture and told me that her little experiment had worked. Her son still found math homework to be difficult, but he didn't give up immediately. Each problem he tried, he kept at it, and when he figured one out, she was surprised by the great pride he had in himself.

So, the lesson here is that we need to be cognizant of the messages we are sending to our children. When we make a comment about a successful person in front of our children, make sure you emphasize how much they must have practiced, rather than labeling them as gifted or "a natural". Rather than praising our own children for their "god-given talents," we should congratulate them for working hard to achieve their goals. In these ways, we can encourage our girls and boys to see their traits as malleable and to see their life successes (and their parents' successes) as a result of hard work and persistence, rather than genetic luck.


Burkley, M. , Parker, J., Stermer, P. S., & Burkley, E. (2010). Trait beliefs that make women vulnerable to math disengagement. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 234-238.

Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., is a professor of social psychology at Oklahoma State University.

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