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Girls Aren’t Afraid of Math, They Just Think They're Supposed To Be

New research suggests girls don't have more math anxiety than boys, they’re just conforming to social stereotypes.
August 28, 2013, 1:00pm

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When I was little, I really wanted to play the bass. But as a meek middle-schooler that hadn't yet discovered the joy of rejecting social norms, I didn't pursue it. Girls don't play bass, I figured. I learned piano.

Common sense would tell you I'm not the only preteen that felt pressure to conform to gender stereotypes—like the ones that presume girls don’t like math and science, say. Now there's new research to back that up. A study titled "Do Girls Really Experience More Anxiety in Mathematics?" published in the latest issue of Psychological Science suggests that, yes, girls say they’re anxious about math more often than boys—but only because they think that’s how they’re supposed to feel.

Researchers surveyed 700 students from grades 5 to 11. First, they had students fill out a questionnaire describing how they felt about math in general. Next, they had students self-report their actual anxiety levels in real-time on mobile phones, immediately before and during a math test.

Lo and behold, when they compared the self assessments with the real-time data they found that even though girls had said they were anxious about math, they didn't actually experience that anxiety, and they did just as well on the exam as the boys.

The team of education researchers from the University of Konstanz and the Thurgau University of Teacher Education go as far as to suggest these stereotype-fueled reports of anxiety—not actual ability or even actual anxiety—could account for the shortage of women in mathematical fields. As the saying goes, if tell yourself something enough times, you might just believe it.

While the notion that women have more anxiety about math than men has been the conclusion of several studies in the past, this research is the first to suggest those conclusions may be wrong, or at least misleading. If the researchers are right, the discovery flings open Pandora's box, raising more questions than it answers about gender roles. Maybe girls are just more modest on questionnaires? Maybe boys report false confidence levels? Maybe boys think they _are supposed to be good at math and that influences _their self-reported stress levels?

Math anxiety is a legit issue—a psychological phenomenon that makes people, generally students, stress out about math regardless of their skills. Kids can psych themselves up about the subject as early as the first grade, scientists have found, and that influences performance in class.

Social factors are a big part of what causes math anxiety, so it stands to reason that stereotypes about the female propensity (or lack thereof) for math and sciences would creep into the psyche of young, impressionable girls. In fact, all the headlines and buzz about the gender gap in technical fields may only be making matters worse, by injecting into the collective consciousness pre-assumptions about the nature of things. Maybe if the slate were wiped clean, we’d find girls love math, and are awesome at it.