Stereotypes and Math Performance

Authored by: Talia Ben-Zeev , Seth Duncan , Chad Forbes

Handbook of Mathematical Cognition

Print publication date:  December  2004
Online publication date:  August  2005

Print ISBN: 9781841694115
eBook ISBN: 9780203998045
Adobe ISBN: 9781135423667


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In 3, Mattel created a Barbie™ doll, which said: “Math is hard!,” highlighting gender stereotypes about math ability in American society. Disconcertingly, Barbie’s frustration with math reflects a social reality in which males outperform females on standardized achievement tests such as the SAT-M and the GRE-Q (e.g., Brown & Josephs, 1999), young girls are less likely to participate in math-related activities (Eccles & Jacobs, 1987), female adolescents pursue fewer high-level math courses (Geary, 1996), and mathematically gifted males are about twice as likely as their mathematically gifted female counterparts to attain a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and to gain employment in math-related fields (Benbow, Lubinski, Shea, & Eftekhari-Sanjani, 2000). Why do females who are at the vanguard of their group in mathematics show poorer performance and less success than high-achieving males? To address this question, we examine biological and environmental theories of gender differences in math ability and attempt to demonstrate how the social contextual can largely explain these and other group differences (e.g., Steele, 1997).

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