A University of Missouri researcher and his colleague
have conducted a review that casts doubt on the accuracy of a popular theory
that attempted to explain why there are more men than women in top levels of
mathematic fields. The researchers found that numerous studies claiming that
the stereotype, “men are better at math”—believed to undermine women’s math
performance—had major methodological flaws, used improper statistical
techniques, and many studies had no scientific evidence of this stereotype.
theory, called stereotype threat, was first published in 1999 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Essentially, the theory is that due to the stereotype that women are worse than
men in math skills, females develop a poor self-image in this area, which leads
to mathematics underachievement.
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, Curators 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.”
study, Geary and Giljsbert Stoet, from the University
of Leeds in the United Kingdom,
examined 20 influential replications of 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
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
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.
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.”
study, “Can stereotype threat explain the sex gap in mathematics performance
and achievement?” will be published in the Review
of General Psychology.