Study discloses: misperception discourages girls from studying math-intensive science

Getting girls to major STEM-oriented topics is a recurring theme in many countries, a new American study shows a possible explanation why this can be so hard:A misperception — the belief that the ability to do difficult mathematics is something that you either have or don’t — currently prevents many American girls from opting for a major in physics, engineering, mathematics, or computer science (PEMC). But there is also good news: schools, families and policy makers can help students to shift their (mis-)perceptions.

From the press release:

“Our results indicate the potential for more women to move into PEMC if they perceive their mathematics ability as strong, and open to growth,” says Lara Perez-Felkner, Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Sociology at Florida State University and co-author of the study.

Together with doctoral students Samantha Nix and Kirby Thomas, Perez-Felkner set out to determine how the choice of college major is influenced by gender and perceptions about ability. They focused on a group of 4,450 students from 750 high schools across the USA, following them over the period 2002-2012 through the records of the Education Longitudinal Study of the US National Center for Education Statistics.

The results were revealing. Someone’s self-perceived ability in mathematics, particular in difficult and challenging tasks, matters. While boys in high school tend to overrate their abilities in mathematics, girls tend to underrate them. But girls in 12th grade who reported being convinced that they could do the most difficult and challenging mathematics were an estimated 3.3 times more likely to take a PEMC major. This held true even after correcting for other factors, for example the science courses they took in high school, ethnicity, college entrance exam scores, and the selectivity of the college.

Another important factor was the perception that mathematical ability can be developed through learning (a “growth mindset”). Girls in 10th grade who reported that they strongly believed this were an estimated 2.3 times more likely to take a PEMC major than girls who reported the opposite belief.

“By focusing on students’ perceived ability under challenge, we are getting closer to the “real” world context, where mathematics anxiety may operate. Most people believe they can do some mathematics, such as splitting a dinner bill with friends, but fewer believe they can do mathematics they perceive as ‘difficult’. Here we show that this belief can influence the decision to specialize in mathematics-intensitive fields, for both women and men,” says Samantha Nix.

These findings have direct implications for policy. They suggest that interventions that foster a growth mindset of mathematical ability could be effective in raising the number of women that pursue a career in PEMC fields. Currently, women are strongly underrepresented in these fields, as shown by recent reports by the OECD and the US National Science Foundation. This gender gap is bad news for everyone: science and society lose talent, while women miss out on potential careers with higher-than-average income and job stability.

“It is important for the US and other nations to continue to invest in interventions to end gender segregation in PEMC sciences. For instance, students may need to hear that encountering difficulty during classwork is expected and normal, and does not say anything about the ability to become a successful scientist. In addition, instructors may want to ask themselves if they are giving the same feedback to young women and men who deal successfully with a difficult mathematics problem in class,” says Perez-Felkner.

The research, which was funded by a National Science Foundation grant, is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Other results include:

  • Girls were an estimated 3.7 times less likely to major in PEMC than their male peers.
  • Girls were an estimated 3.8 times more likely to major in Health Science than their male peers.
  • Girls and boys who had completed both Physics 1 and Chemistry 1 courses in high school were an estimated 1.9 times more likely to major in a PEMC field than their peers, and an estimated 2.5 times more likely if they had completed both Physics 2 and Chemistry 2.

Abstract of the study (free access):

Students’ perceptions of their mathematics ability vary by gender and seem to influence science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degree choice. Related, students’ perceptions during academic difficulty are increasingly studied in educational psychology, suggesting a link between such perceptions and task persistence. Despite interest in examining the gender disparities in STEM, these concepts have not been considered in tandem. In this manuscript, we investigate how perceived ability under challenge—in particular in mathematics domains—influences entry into the most sex-segregated and mathematics-intensive undergraduate degrees: physics, engineering, mathematics, and computer science (PEMC). Using nationally representative Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS) data, we estimate the influence of perceived ability under challenging conditions on advanced high school science course taking, selection of an intended STEM major, and specific major type 2 years after high school. Demonstrating the importance of specificity when discussing how gender influences STEM career pathways, the intersecting effects of gender and perceived ability under mathematics challenge were distinct for each scientific major category. Perceived ability under challenge in secondary school varied by gender, and was highly predictive of selecting PEMC and health sciences majors. Notably, women’s 12th grade perceptions of their ability under mathematics challenge increased their probability of selecting PEMC majors over and above biology. In addition, gender moderated the effect of growth mindset on students’ selection of health science majors. Perceptions of ability under challenge in general and verbal domains also influenced retention in and declaration of certain STEM majors. The implications of these results are discussed, with particular attention to access to advanced scientific coursework in high school and interventions aimed at enhancing young women’s perceptions of their ability, in particular in response to the potentially inhibiting influence of stereotype threat on their pathways to scientific degrees.


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