Girls’ Misperception of Their Mathematic Abilities Leads to Low Participation in Some STEM Fields

Lara Perez-Felkner, Samantha Nix, and Kirby Thomas

Lara Perez-Felkner, Samantha Nix, and Kirby Thomas

New research by three women scholars at Florida State University finds that women and girls tend to shy away from the physical sciences, mathematics, engineering, and computer science simply because they have a misperception that they do not have the ability to excel at advanced mathematics.

Researchers examined a group of 4,451 students from 752 high schools across the United States. The study found that high school boys tended to overestimate their mathematical abilities, while high school girls tended to underestimate their mathematical skills.

Lara Perez-Felkner, assistant professor of higher education and sociology in the College of Education at Florida State and co-author of the study, said that “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.’ The research shows that this belief can influence the decision to specialize in mathematics-intensive fields, for both women and men.”

The authors suggest that interventions that foster a growth mindset of mathematical ability could be effective in raising the number of women who study in math-intensive fields. Samantha Nix, a doctoral student at Florida State and a co-author of the study, says that “women students may need to hear that encountering difficulty during classwork is expected and normal and does not diminish their 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.” The third co-author of the study is Kirby Thomas, a doctoral student in sociology at Florida State University.

The article, “Perceived Mathematical Ability Under Challenge: A Longitudinal Perspective on Sex Segregation Among STEM Degree Fields,” was published on the website of the journal Frontiers of Psychology. It is available here.

Filed Under: Gender GapResearch/StudySTEM Fields


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