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Updated 12:30 PM February 14, 2007
 

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  Research
Lessons from Barbie: Women and math

As if listening to an inner Teen Talk Barbie saying "Math is hard!" young women whose gender is central to their identity may be more vulnerable to underperforming in math.

According to a new study of college undergraduates, women who said gender was central to their self-concept, and who also showed evidence of believing the stereotype that girls don't do math, performed worse in an introductory calculus course than women who were less identified as being female and who did not show signs of unconscious or implicit stereotyping.

Their math performance suffered even when the women explicitly rejected the notion that males are better at math than females, the researchers say.

The study, conducted by psychologists Amy Kiefer at the University of California, San Francisco, and Denise Sekaquaptewa at U-M, was published in the January 2007 issue of Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.

To assess the presence of implicit stereotypes researchers showed study participants lists of words then measured their reaction times as they matched the words. Evidence for holding implicit stereotypes included linking words like "he" and "him" more quickly than "she" and "her" to math concepts like "calculate" and "compute," for example. For participants holding implicit stereotypes, female-related words more quickly were paired with arts and humanities concepts like "English" and "classics."

Sekaquaptewa, who is a member of the Department of Psychology and a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), says women who strongly agreed that femininity was central to their sense of who they were, and who also showed they held implicit gender stereotypes, performed worse on the final exam and were less likely to express interest in a math-related career.

"This was true even when we controlled for SAT scores in math and prior performance in the calculus class," she says.

The majority of women in the study disagreed with the idea that men have superior math ability, the researchers note. But even when women explicitly disavowed this stereotype, the speed with which they linked "male" and "math" indicated that many in fact linked the two concepts.

The research may provide insight into why women remain less likely than men to major in math or go into math-heavy professions like engineering or computer-science, the authors say.

"It's the combination of embracing a feminine identity, which women are encouraged to do in our society, and of holding beliefs that math is for men, even when these beliefs are not consciously expressed," Sekaquaptewa says. "Such implicit beliefs are likely left over, like a residue, from stereotypic messages that women were exposed to while growing up."

The research was supported by a grant from the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

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