A new study shows that young girls who feel they’re bad at math compared to boys, despite having equal skills, are unlikely to choose career paths in science, technology, education, and math fields. The likely culprit, according to the Florida State University researchers, is cultural pressure on girls to be perfect, which creates perverse incentives. Rather than encouraging young woman to tackle challenges — something boys are often taught to do — parents and educators accidentally create an intellectual risk aversion that seems to have an outsized effect in STEM fields.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, looks at data for boy’s and girl’s beliefs in math ability, collected by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. Researchers looked at answers to three survey prompts: “I’m certain I can understand the most difficult material presented in math texts,” “I’m confident I can understand the most complex material presented by my math teacher,” and “I’m certain I can master the skills being taught in my math class.” Researchers then compared responses to actual math achievement in 10th grade and senior year. Finally, they compared that data to the kid’s choice of higher education majors two years after high school graduation.
After pouring over the data, the authors found that boys’ and girls’ feelings about their math abilities were dictated by gender. “Boys are significantly more confident in challenging mathematics contexts than otherwise identically talented girls,” the authors reported. That confidence correlated to choosing, and staying in, a higher education major in STEM fields. Girls who lacked confidence rarely chose those fields, despite high math achievement. Unfortunately, the authors note, these are exactly the fields that have the most narrow pay gaps between men and women.
The research backs up a 2016 study from Glasgow University that showed girls self report inferior math globally. But why would this be the case? The Florida State University researchers offer a couple of suggestions. “There are the persistent stereotypes held by many adults and young people in their life that girls are ‘just not as good’ at math and science,” the authors note. Also, “Perhaps the gap in computing and other scientific fields is attributable to girls’ perceived need to be ‘perfect rather than brave.” They point specifically to the tendency to of culture to push girls into the role of the “princess.”