For Students Good at Math, Women Are Less Likely Than Men to Have Confidence in Their Abilities

A new analysis by Devin Pope a professor of behavioral science and a research scientist in behavioral economics at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, finds that women who are good at mathematics are less likely to have confidence in their abilities than men who are good at mathematics. This lack of confidence may impact efforts to retain women in the field of mathematics and also other STEM fields.

In an article in the Washington Post, Dr. Pope analyzes data on more than 4 million students who took the SAT college entrance examination in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Students who take the test are asked demographic data and other questions. One question asked the students if they think they are in the top 10 percent of their class in mathematical abilities. The answer to that question can then be compared to the students’ actual test scores.

The results showed that 67 percent of men who received a 700 on the math section of the SAT said they believed that they are in the top 10 percent in math ability. In contrast, only 56 percent of women who also received a 700 on the SAT math section reported they were in the top 10 percent in mathematical ability.

Dr. Pope points out that this low level of confidence for women in mathematics is absent on the other part of the SAT. There is only a small gender difference between men and women’s estimates of their abilities on reading and their actual test scores on the reading part of the SAT.

Dr. Pope concludes that “this data provides compelling evidence in a familiar domain that men and women differ in their confidence levels about mathematical ability — even when comparing individuals with the same test scores. These differences in beliefs are likely an important factor in creating gender imbalance in college majors and occupations. Efforts intended to improve the accuracy of beliefs about mathematical ability are likely to be an important strategy in combating gender imbalance in STEM fields.”

Filed Under: Research/StudySTEM Fields


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