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‘Men get math’ fails to explain gender gap

U. LEEDS (UK) / U. MISSOURI (US) — New research calls into question the theory claiming the “men are better at math” stereotype fuels the gender gap in mathematic fields.

Studies suggesting women’s underachievement in math is due to their own poor self-image are fundamentally flawed, say psychologists Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Leeds and David Geary of the University of Missouri. Their findings suggest recent strategies aimed at improving girls’ performance in math—which are based on these studies—are misguided and unlikely to work.


This theory, called stereotype threat, was first published in 1999 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Essentially, the theory is that due to the stereotype that women are worse than men in math skills, females develop a poor self-image in this area, which leads to mathematics underachievement.

“The stereotype theory really was adopted by psychologists and policy makers around the world as the final word, with the idea that eliminating the stereotype could eliminate the gender gap,” says Geary. “However, even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem continued. We now believe the wrong problem is being addressed.”

Geary and Stoet examined 20 influential replications of the original stereotype theory study. The researchers reported in the journal Review of General Psychology that many subsequent studies had serious scientific flaws, including a lack of a male control group and improperly applied statistical techniques.

“We were surprised the researchers did not subject males to the same experimental manipulations as female participants,” Geary says. “It is reasonable to think that men also would not do well if told ‘men normally do worse on this test’ right before they take the test. When we adjusted the findings based on this and other statistical factors, we found little to no significant stereotype theory effect.”

The researchers believe that basing interventions on the stereotype threat is actually doing more harm than good, as vital resources are being dedicated to a problem that does not exist.

“These findings really irritate me, as a psychologist, because this is a science where we are really trying to discover what the issues are,” Geary says. “The fact is there are still a disproportionate number of men in top levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need more women to succeed in these fields for our economy and for our future.”

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