Negative gender stereotypes can affect women's test performance in math, study shows

AUSTIN, Texas—Women’s math and spatial reasoning performance significantly improves when they are not worried about confirming negative gender stereotypes, University of Texas at Austin Assistant Professor Matthew McGlone reports in this month’s issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

Over the years, researchers have examined the contribution stereotypes make to differences in academic performance across ethnic and gender groups. It’s been demonstrated that the presence of “stereotype threat”—the risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group, such as the stereotype that women perform poorly in math—can undermine the performance of even the most talented students.

“Frustrated by seeing many female and ethnic minority students do poorly on my statistics exams—despite appearing to master concepts in class, homework and in one-on-one interactions—I wanted to explore how much of their difficulty stemmed from the anxiety associated with being compared to other students and the prospect of confirming negative stereotypes,” said McGlone who conducted his research with Dr. Joshua Aronson, of New York University.

The myriad demonstrations of stereotype threat in college-aged students hinge on cues, such as a demographics question about ethnicity or gender—ascribed identities. Acknowledging that many aspects of personal identity are achieved—membership in social categories based on individual choices and achievements—rather than ascribed, McGlone contended that deficits in test performance caused by stereotype threat could be mitigated by instead cuing test takers to their achieved identity for which there are positive performance expectations.

He tested his hypothesis by priming different social identities among undergraduates prior to administering the Vandenberg Mental Rotation Test (VMRT), a standardized spatial reasoning test linked to math performance. The VMRT typically produces the largest documented gender difference in any cognitive ability, a difference that some academics have attributed to innate differences in intelligence favoring men.

McGlone and his colleagues asked male and female students at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., to take the VMRT. Prior to the test, the participants completed one of three short questionnaires composed of six questions designed to cue a particular social identity: their residence in the northeastern U.S., their gender, or their status as students in a selective private college.

McGlone found that females who were primed to contemplate their identity as students at a selective private college performed at a significantly higher level on the VMRT than those primed to contemplate their gender or a test-irrelevant identity. In contrast, priming selective private college status among the male participants did not improve their performance. However, priming their gender status (men are better at math) did improve their performance.

“Based on these results, we argue that priming a positive achieved identity (selective private college student) can alleviate women’s anxiety about confirming the negative stereotype that ‘women can't do math,’” said McGlone. “When we primed this positive identity in men—for whom there is no negative stereotype regarding their math acumen—their performance was no better than when their gender was primed.”

These results suggest that scientific claims about large, innate gender differences in math and spatial reasoning ability may be premature.

“We were able to significantly reduce an allegedly large gender difference with a pretty simple manipulation,” said McGlone. “Regardless of whether the documented gender gap is due to biology or socialization, we can close it by psychological means.”

Applications of these findings might include eliminating subtle cues from math testing environments that might make gender identity issues salient to women and thereby impair their performance.

“Ideally, negative stereotypes associated with any social category—ascribed or not—should be eliminated,” said McGlone. “However, until that time students should consider focusing on the attainment of additional identities—those associated with positive academic expectations—as a means of improving academic performance.”

For more information contact: Matthew McGlone, 512-471-1920; Erin Geisler, College of Communication, 512-475-8071.