When you wander around college campuses, you see the effects of strong gender differences in preferences for majors. At many schools, there are far more women than men majoring in psychology and biology, but far more men than women majoring in math and engineering.  

This observation has led researchers to explore reasons why men and women differ in the fields they choose. One of the factors that has been explored is math anxiety—the amount of anxiety that people anticipate or experience when thinking about or doing math.  A common observation across many studies is that when women are asked about their anxiety about math in general they exhibit a higher level of math anxiety than men.

An interesting study by Thomas Goetz, Madeleine Bieg, Oliver Ludtke, Reinhard Pekrun, and Nathan Hall in the October, 2013 issue of Psychological Science examined three questions. First, they wanted to replicate the finding that women exhibit higher levels of math anxiety then men.  Then, they asked whether women who are currently taking a math class or a math exam are actually experiencing more anxiety than men.  Finally, they explored reasons for the differences in math anxiety.

Across two studies, they got measurements from about 700 German students in grades 5-11. In one study, students were asked for their general level of math anxiety and then were asked to assess their anxiety twice while taking a math exam. In the other study, students were asked about their general math anxiety and also their specific anxiety in the middle of a math class.  Students were also asked questions about how good they thought they were at math and information was gathered about their math grades.

Both studies found that the girls were more anxious about math in general than the boys.  Interestingly, when the questions were asked during an exam or during a class, the girls and boys were equal in their level of anxiety (and both boys and girls had very little anxiety in the moment). 

What is going on here?

It isn’t math performance. The girls and boys in both studies were doing equally well in their math classes.

Instead, it seems to be related to differences between boys and girls in how good they think they are at math. The boys’ ratings of their competence at math were consistently higher than those of the girls. Statistical tests show these differences in ratings were related to differences in general math anxiety.

These findings suggest that it would be valuable to help all children get better calibrated about how well they are doing in math classes. Knowing their level of performance could help them to reduce their anxiety about math in general. In addition, it might be useful to take children who have general math anxiety and to help them to realize that they do not experience that much anxiety when they are actually doing math. 

Clearly, math anxiety is not the only factor that leads to differences in the majors that people pursue in college and the careers that they establish. But, anything we can do to reduce the influence of general anxiety on career choices is a good thing.

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