New research suggest that men think they are much better in math than they really are. Women, however, tend to have an accurate appraisal of their arithmetic capabilities.
The findings are somewhat surprising given the abundance of men in careers of science and engineering.
In the U.S., a significant gap exists between the number of men and women who choose to study and follow careers in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This is true even though women outperform their male counterparts on mathematical tests in elementary school.
In the new study, Shane Bench, Ph.D., of Washington State University and colleagues examined how people’s biases and previous experiences about their mathematical abilities make them more or less likely to consider pursuing math-related courses and careers.
Research findings appear in the journal Sex Roles.
Two studies were conducted, one using 122 undergraduate students and the other 184 participants. Each group first completed a math test before guessing how well they had fared at providing the right answers.
In the first study, participants received feedback about their real test scores before they were again asked to take a test and predict their scores. In the second study, participants only wrote one test without receiving any feedback. They were, however, asked to report on their intent to pursue math-related courses and careers.
Across the two studies it was found that men overestimated the number of problems they solved, while women quite accurately reported how well they fared. After the participants in Study one received feedback about their real test scores, the men were more accurate at estimating how well they had done on the second test.
The results of Study two show that because the male participants believed they had a greater knack for maths than was the case, they were more likely to pursue maths courses and careers than women.
“Gender gaps in the science, technology, engineering, and maths fields are not necessarily the result of women’s underestimating their abilities, but rather may be due to men’s overestimating their abilities,” said Bench.
Researchers also found that women who had more positive past experiences with mathematics tended to rate their numerical abilities higher than they really were. This highlights the value of positively reinforcing a woman’s knack for mathematics especially at a young age.
“Despite assumptions that realism and objectivity are always best in evaluating the self and making decisions, positive illusions about math abilities may be beneficial to women pursuing math courses and careers,” says Bench.
“Such positive illusions could function to protect women’s self-esteem despite lower-than-desired performance, leading women to continue to pursue courses in science, technology, engineering, and maths fields and ultimately improve their skills.”