Women and maths, prejudices as self-fulfilling prophecies. New research

Larry Summers and women

This cartoon from the USA is about Larry Summers and women.

Larry Summers and women

As is this cartoon.

From New Scientist:

Women told that female under-achievement in mathematics is due to genetic factors perform much worse on maths tests than those told that social factors are responsible.

These new findings could have serious implications not only for the way the subject is taught in schools, but for public discussions about genetic influences on behaviour.

It may also inform debates about why women are under-represented in university mathematics and science departments.

The question of whether there might be gender differences in mathematical ability remains contentious.

Earlier this year, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, Massachusetts, US, resigned in response to an outcry over his speculation on the topic.

He said one reason women are under-represented in science and engineering jobs could be because of a “different availability of aptitude at the high end”.

(Read and watch a debate between Harvard professors Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke on ‘The Science of Gender and Science’ in the wake of Lawrence Summers’ speech)

Serious impact

“As our research demonstrates, just hearing about that sort of idea is enough to negatively affect women’s performance, and reproduce the stereotype that is out there,” says Steven Heine at the University of British Columbia, Canada, who led the new study.

Whether true or not, the stereotype of innate sex differences does exist in mathematics departments, and it can have a serious impact, agrees Peter Hall at the Mathematical Sciences Institute at the Australian National University in Canberra, and president of the Australian Mathematical Society.

“It can be very forbidding for a young woman to come up against that generalisation – and that’s one of the environmental factors that has kept women out of not just maths but science,” he says.

Nature or nurture?

Heine and colleague Ilan Dar-Nimrod told 220 women that there are definite sex differences in maths performance.

One group was then told that genetic factors were the cause.

Another group was told that experiences with studying maths were responsible – that women do worse than men because of the way their teachers interacted with them in elementary school, for instance.

The impact on subsequent mathematics tests was pronounced, with the “genes” group getting about half as many correct answers as the “experiential” group.

See also here.

I am not a maths specialist.

However, half as many correct answers to me means that a woman who would have gotten 10 out of 10 correct answers, and might probably have been best of the class, gets only 5 out of 10 right when feeling under pressure of stereotypes.

5 out of 10: bad enough to not pass an examination.

And a woman who, without prejudices voiced in the classroom, might have gotten 6 out of 10 answers correct (not brilliant, but enough to pass an examination) might get only 3 out of 10 with prejudices: a miserable failure.

So, practically all women would fail: if prejudice would be voiced.

It would be interesting to have similar experiments involving people of classes or so called races about whom Rightist ‘genetic’ prejudices exist.

Study: Girls in Sexist Societies Worse at Math: here.

Globally, girls are no worse than boys at mathematics. But stereotypes, some coming from teachers themselves, keep alive the myth that women and numbers don’t mix: here.

Related, men & women have equal math skills. But the problem is, parents & teachers don’t believe it: here.

Mr and Mrs Einstein-Maric: here.

If women assume fake names, they perform better on math tests: here.

Matthew Skomarovsky, LittleSis: “Larry Summers’ path to the Obama administration, and his record within it, are symptomatic of a new American plutocracy, and his new job at Harvard will keep the gears of corruption greased. Summers rose to power under the protective wing of Wall Street and Democratic Party mogul Robert Rubin. He aggressively advanced Rubin’s program of financial deregulation and faithfully rescued his cronies when deregulation went wrong. Despite the economic catastrophes these policies have contributed to, Summers and other Rubinites have continued their political ascendancy in recent years, filling top positions in the Obama administration”: here.

12 thoughts on “Women and maths, prejudices as self-fulfilling prophecies. New research

  1. A political figure who was key to the destruction of 40 percent of the wealth owned by citizens in the country that signed his paycheck should be ignored or exiled.

    Instead, just today, Larry Summers is given prime billing in The Washington Post to whip up fear of expanding social safety net costs. Instead of being ridiculed for helping to pave the way for the destruction of the Glass-Steagall act and for demanding regulators have no say in the creation of hundreds of trillions of dollars in unregulated derivatives, Summers is treated as if his opinion is still relevant.

    This is what the insider media think of you; they think you deserve to hear the “expert opinion” one of the most influential failures of our time – a man who is personally responsible for much of the grinding economic torture so much of the population is still enduring.

    Instead of being a part of the media culture that allows people to fail upward, let’s build a new one.

    Make a tax-deductible contribution to Truthout today – we don’t get funding from the Wall Street mafia. Instead, we call them out.


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