Thursday, October 27, 2016

Girls, Math, and Grade School Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat, especially with regard to women and math ability, has been one of my interests for a long time (see past posts here and here). To recap, stereotype threat occurs when a stereotype about a group (e.g., "women are bad at math") affects a group members' performance (e.g., a woman encountering math test). Though some studies have tested this by specifically stating stereotype prior to the test phase, other research suggests that this isn't necessary. Simply being aware of the stereotype is enough to impact performance.

Recent research suggests this stereotype is still alive and well, and begins rearing its ugly head around 1st grade:
A new study shows that first-grade teachers consistently rate girls’ math ability below boys’ — even when they have the same achievement level and learning style. The study out today in the journal AERA Open from researchers at New York University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign seems to represent a setback for gender equity in math. A widely reported 2008 study found that girls score as well as boys do on standardized state math tests. But the latest study suggests that early in their math education, many girls run into a teacher who perceives them as being worse at the subject than they are — which could discourage some of them from heading down a path that could lead to a career in math, science or engineering.
For me, I think I became consciously aware of the gender math stereotype in middle school. And they were especially obvious to me in junior high and high school, when I took algebra courses for the first time. Believe it or not, I struggled big-time with algebra. But I excelled at geometry. Still, I started to buy into the stereotype, if not about all women, but definitely about myself. I used to be involved with science and math clubs, but around 7th or 8th grade, I stopped going because I believed I couldn't do math.

My Algebra 2 teacher definitely bought into gender stereotypes. I approached him early in the course to tell him I was having trouble. He invited me to stop by during study hall. I showed up, he gave me some problems to work on, and walked away. A couple of boys from my class showed up and he spent the whole time showing them how to do the problems on the board, correcting them when they gave a wrong answer, and just being really hands-on with them. Meanwhile, I was working through problems I had no idea how to do with no attention from him. I did this one more time before I got the hint and stopped showing up. That was my one and only C in high school. That was also the last math class I took in high school.

Now that I've been working with higher-level statistics for so long, algebra makes perfect sense to me. I wonder how different things would have been in my career choices if I'd had more help.

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