Ms. Scientist

Self-confidence and teacher support helps girls succeed at math and science

In 2005, the then-president of Harvard University said that men are better at math and science than women. (President Lawrence Summers’ exact words were a bit more roundabout. While theorizing why women are underrepresented in those fields, he said “there is a different availability of aptitude at the high end.”)

Turns out Summers’s attitude may be to blame, according to a new study from vocational psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The three-year report sought to identify what encourages girls to pursue math and science, and what barriers keep them from the subjects. In the 20 years prior to the study, experts believed that girls lacked interest and tried to combat their indifference. The report revealed that a missing factor – confidence – often precedes interest. Because many girls perceived math and science as difficult, they assumed they would fail and didn’t take the classes. Parental support and positive expectations from teachers can reverse these negative prognoses. Unfortunately, both boys and girls believed that teachers deemed boys better at math and science. The study didn’t examine whether the teachers did indeed think this way, or if the boys and girls were internalizing stereotypes.

This comes shortly after scientists released a similar study in June, which examined 7 million students and found that boys and girls performed equally at math. Science noted that the results disproved Summers’s infamous theory that more boys were math whizzes, since girls scored in the top five percent nearly as often as boys. The Times observed that people were shocked by these findings, which indicates that stereotypes are still alive and well. The study’s co-author agreed, surmising that negative stereotypes drive girls and women out of math careers, regardless of their aptitude. also covered the study in an article entitled “Girls Catching Up to Boys in Math, Study Finds.” Hold on. Didn’t the research show that girls had already caught up with boys? And hadn’t the co-researcher concluded that stereotypes, not aptitude, had kept them away from it in the first place? Maybe a study will come out showing that media generalizations are to blame for women’s underrepresentation in math and science careers, too.

[Via PhysOrg]