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Implicit Stereotypes and Gender Identification may Affect Female Math Performance

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New research may provide insight as to why, despite progress over the last few decades, women remain underrepresented in math-heavy majors and professions.

In an article published in the January issue of Psychological Science, psychologists Amy Kiefer of the University of California, San Francisco and Denise Sekaquaptewa of the University of Michigan point to an interaction between women’s own underlying “implicit” stereotypes and their gender identification as a source for their underperformance and lowered perseverance in mathematical fields.

Studying undergraduates enrolled in an introductory calculus course, the researchers discovered that women who possessed strong implicit gender stereotypes, (for example, automatically associating “male” more than “female” with math ability and math professions) and were likely to identify themselves as feminine performed worse relative to their female counterparts who did not possess such stereotypes and who were less likely to identify with traditionally female characteristics. The same underperforming females were also the least inclined to pursue a math-based career. The findings were demonstrated independently of prior course performance and performance on the math portion of the SAT. Strikingly, a majority of the women participating in the study explicitly expressed disagreement with the idea that men have superior math ability.

This research helps to shed light on why women are less likely to complete a major in mathematics in college, pursue math-intensive careers such as computer science or engineering, and are more than twice as likely as men to drop out of these fields once they begin. One explanation is that to maintain a strong identification with math-related fields, women may come to distance themselves from stereotypically female characteristics, which as the authors suggest, could create personal and professional conflicts for those women who do not wish to abandon their feminine identity. When coupled with strong implicit stereotypes about females’ math competence, those women who do maintain strong identification with being female may be particularly vulnerable to leaving math and science fields, regardless of their mathematical prowess. Thus it appears that even when consciously disavowing stereotypes, female math students are still susceptible to negative perceptions of their ability.