Girls are still afraid of math, even when their moms are scientists

Understanding why girls do worse than boys (pdf) in math, and why they have more anxiety about the subject, is complicated. Cultural norms that favor boys, teacher bias, and even parents’ own math anxiety all seem to play a role.

By that logic, things should be better in more countries where lots of women hold powerful math and engineering jobs.

They are not.

A new study shows that even when countries where lots of moms have high-status STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs, math anxiety for girls is significant. What’s more, the gap between girls’ and boys anxiety in math is bigger in more developed and equitable countries.

This is bad news for the vast majority of women-in-STEM advocates who argue that more role models are key to getting more women to pursue degrees and careers in the area. “The assumption that just seeing women role models will open the floodgates won’t be enough,” said David Geary, a professor of psychological sciences and neuroscience at University of Missouri and one of the authors of the study.

The study, published in PlosOne, analyzed data from more than 750,000 15-year-old students across 68 countries. The researchers wanted to explore the anxiety gap: if cultural norms played a big role, then more gender-equal countries would show a smaller gap. Countries where lots of moms worked in high-powered STEM jobs would surely show a smaller performance gap between girls and boys and a smaller anxiety gap.

That’s not what the data showed. “The patterns were exactly the opposite of what you would predict from social cultural theories of why you find sex-related differences,” Geary said.

The researchers found that when equality is low, math performance for both girls and boys tends to be low, and anxiety over the subject is high. As gender equality improves, performance improves and math anxiety for everyone declines. But the drop in anxiety is dramatically steeper for boys than girls. In the US and Britain, for example, there’s a small performance gap favoring boys, but the anxiety gap is three times larger.

According to the US department of commerce (pdf), women hold 24% of all STEM jobs, compared to 48% of all jobs. That number hasn’t budged much in recent years, which is unfortunate since women earn 33% more in those STEM jobs.

The Commerce Department chalks the discrepancy up to: “A lack of female role models, gender stereotyping, and less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields.”

But this evidence doesn’t seem to hold that up. And that leaves a lot of people at a loss. “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,” said Gijsbert Stoet, a researcher from the University of Glasgow and the co-author of the study said in a statement.

Geary says we have to look closer at the decisions students make. “Rather than look at broad social interventions—role models and trying to entice girls into STEM— we have to look into the decision-making of high school and college students.” Many of them are more than capable of succeeding in STEM, he says, but that’s not the route they are taking.

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