Women's math performance affected by theories on sex differences: UBC researchers

Women perform differently on math tests depending on whether they believe math-related gender differences are determined by genetic or social differences, according to University of British Columbia researchers.

In a paper to be published in the Oct. 19 issue of Science magazine, UBC investigators Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven Heine explore how women's math performance is affected by stereotypes that link female underachievement to either genetic or experiential causes.

Women and math is a controversial topic that led to the 2006 resignation of Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard who speculated that one of the potential reasons why women are represented less in math and science professions is that fewer women than men have the intrinsic ability required by such jobs.

Dar-Nimrod and Heine's research suggests that women tend to perceive gender differences in math to be innate or genetic, but when women consider such differences to be based on theories of nurture rather than nature, they can improve their performance.

"Our study doesn't explore whether innate sex differences exist," says Dar-Nimrod, a Psychology doctoral student. "Instead, we investigated how the perceived source of stereotypes can influence women's math performance."

"The findings suggest that people tend to accept genetic explanations as if they're more powerful or irrevocable, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies," says Assoc. Prof. Heine, who teaches in the Dept. of Psychology.

"But experiential theories may allow a woman to say this stereotype doesn't apply to me," says Heine.

Between 2003 and 2006, Dar-Nimrod and Heine conducted their research with more than 220 female participants. Their study provided participants with bogus scientific explanations for alleged sex differences in math.

Some women received a genetic account of inborn traits to explain the difference while others received an experiential account – such as math teachers treating boys preferentially during the first years of math education. Other participants were reminded of the stereotype about female math underachievement, or were told that there are no sex differences in math.

Heine and Dar-Nimrod found the worse math performances belonged to women who received a genetic explanation for female underachievement in math or those who were reminded of the stereotype about female math underachievement. Women who received the experiential explanation performed better – on par with those who were led to believe there are no sex differences in math.

The researchers say the media should report on genetic research with greater care.

"We should be mindful of how science is interpreted, especially genetic explanations where you often see grossly simplified media stories that report on genes for homosexuality, genes for obesity or genes for thrill seeking," says Dar-Nimrod.

"The reports themselves have the potential to undermine people's motivations. If I believe that genes have a deterministic influence on my weight, will I still struggle to keep up with my diet and exercise routine?"


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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