Stereotypes of Women Do Not Explain BehaviorNew research places doubt that belief in a populat stereotype can influence performance and self-image.

Investigators investigated the perception that men have better math skills — a belief that theoretically explains the disproportionate number of men in the top levels of mathematical fields.

University of Missouri researchers discovered significant errors in studies claiming that the stereotype, “men are better at math,” detrimentally influences a woman’s math performance.

Investigators found the studies had major methodological flaws, utilized improper statistical techniques, and failed to prove scientific evidence of this stereotype.

The concept of stereotypes influencing performance was first published in 1999. At this time, researchers theorized that due to the stereotype, women are worse than men in math skills because females develop a poor self-image in this area, which leads to mathematics underachievement.

“The stereotype theory really was adopted by psychologists and policy makers around the world as the final word, with the idea that eliminating the stereotype could eliminate the gender gap,” said David Geary, Professor of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science.

“However, even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem continued. We now believe the wrong problem is being addressed.”

The study, “Can stereotype threat explain the sex gap in mathematics performance and achievement?” will be published in the journal Review of General Psychology.

In the study, Geary and Giljsbert Stoet, from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, reviewed 20 experiments that replicated the original stereotype theory study.

The researchers found that many subsequent studies had serious scientific flaws, including a lack of a male control group and improperly applied statistical techniques.

“We were surprised the researchers did not subject males to the same experimental manipulations as female participants,” Geary said.

“It is reasonable to think that men also would not do well if told ‘men normally do worse on this test’ right before they take the test. When we adjusted the findings based on this and other statistical factors, we found little to no significant stereotype theory effect.”

Ironically, researchers believe that basing interventions on the stereotype threat is actually doing more harm than good, as vital resources are being dedicated to a problem that does not exist.

“These findings really irritate me, as a psychologist, because this is a science where we are really trying to discover what the issues are,” Geary said.

“The fact is there are still a disproportionate number of men in top levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need more women to succeed in these fields for our economy and for our future.”

Source: University of Missouri

WOman doing math photo by shutterstock.