Girls Still Avoid Math, Even If Mom Is A Scientist

Even in more developed countries where larger proportions of mothers work in science-related fields, girls experience so many negative emotions about math that often they avoid the subject altogether. New research suggests factors beyond performance are driving higher rates of math anxiety in girls.

David Geary, professor of psychological science at the University of Missouri, said:

“We analyzed student performance in 15-year-olds from around the world along with socioeconomic indicators in more than 60 countries and economic regions, including the US and the United Kingdom.

Analysis revealed that girls’ mathematics anxiety was not related to the level of their mothers’ engagement in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers, nor was it related to gender equality in the countries we studied.

In fact, the gender difference in mathematics anxiety was larger in more gender-equal and developed countries. In more developed countries, boys’ and girls’ mathematics performance was higher and their mathematics anxiety was lower, but this pattern was stronger for boys than for girls.”

In 59 percent of the countries analyzed, gender anxiety differences are more than twice the magnitude of gender differences in mathematics performance, suggesting there is more to the story than performance alone.

Policies Have Failed

The study also analyzed the possible role of parental views on the value and importance of mathematics for their daughters and sons. Perhaps, surprisingly, parents in more developed countries placed a stronger emphasis on the math ability of their sons than their daughters, despite the fact that more developed countries have larger proportions of mothers working in STEM fields.

“Policies to attract more girls and women into subjects such as computer science, physics, and engineering have largely failed,”

says Gijsbert Stoet, reader in psychology at the University of Glasgow and coauthor of the study published in PLOS ONE.

“Gender equality is a key humanistic value in enlightened and developed societies, but our research shows that policymakers cannot rely on it as the sole factor in getting more girls into subjects like physics and computer science. It is fair to say that nobody knows what will actually attract more girls into these subjects. Policies and programs to change the gender balance in non-organic STEM subjects have just not worked.”

Stoet G, Bailey DH, Moore AM, Geary DC (2016)
Countries with Higher Levels of Gender Equality Show Larger National Sex Differences in Mathematics Anxiety and Relatively Lower Parental Mathematics Valuation for Girls
PLoS ONE 11(4): e0153857. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153857


Despite international advancements in gender equality across a variety of societal domains, the underrepresentation of girls and women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) related fields persists. In this study, we explored the possibility that the sex difference in mathematics anxiety contributes to this disparity. More specifically, we tested a number of predictions from the prominent gender stratification model, which is the leading psychological theory of cross-national patterns of sex differences in mathematics anxiety and performance. To this end, we analyzed data from 761,655 15-year old students across 68 nations who participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Most importantly and contra predictions, we showed that economically developed and more gender equal countries have a lower overall level of mathematics anxiety, and yet a larger national sex difference in mathematics anxiety relative to less developed countries. Further, although relatively more mothers work in STEM fields in more developed countries, these parents valued, on average, mathematical competence more in their sons than their daughters. The proportion of mothers working in STEM was unrelated to sex differences in mathematics anxiety or performance. We propose that the gender stratification model fails to account for these national patterns and that an alternative model is needed. In the discussion, we suggest how an interaction between socio-cultural values and sex-specific psychological traits can better explain these patterns. We also discuss implications for policies aiming to increase girls’ STEM participation.[/alert-announce]