U. WASHINGTON (US) — Children believe the stereotype that math is for boys, not for girls, and even go as far as identifying themselves that way, according to a new study.
The “math is for boys” stereotype that has been used to explain in part why so few women pursue science, mathematics, and engineering careers may be nudging girls to think that “math is not for me,” affecting what activities they engage in and their career aspirations.
The new study, published in the journal Child Development, suggests that, for girls, lack of interest in mathematics may come from culturally communicated messages about math being more appropriate for boys than for girls.
“We didn’t have that stereotype where I grew up,” says Dario Cvencek, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who grew up in Yugoslavia. “People there thought that math went with girls just as much as it did with boys.”
How much youngsters identify themselves with math, as in “math is for me”—has been largely left out of previous studies of the math-gender stereotype.
Even though other studies using self-report measures show that boys and girls alike make the “math is for boys” link, they don’t distinguish between whether girls simply know about the math-gender stereotype but aren’t fazed by it, or are instead applying it to themselves so that it affects their identity, interests, and actions.
Using a computer-based categorization test, the Implicit Association Test, researchers assessed how school children link math with gender. In adults, the test can predict actual math performance and real-world choices.
As early as second grade, the children demonstrated the American cultural stereotype for math: boys associated math with their own gender while girls associated math with boys. In the self-concept test, boys identified themselves with math more than girls did.
“Our results show that cultural stereotypes about math are absorbed strikingly early in development, prior to ages at which there are gender differences in math achievement,” says co-author Andrew Meltzoff, a professor of psychology.
Parental and educational practices aimed at enhancing girls’ self-concepts for math might be beneficial as early as elementary school, when youngsters are already beginning to develop ideas about who does math.
“Children have their antennae up and are assimilating the stereotypes exhibited by parents, educators, peers, games, and the media,” says Meltzoff.
“Perhaps if we can depict math as being equally for boys and girls, we can help broaden the interests and aspirations of all our children.”
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