The Truth About Gender Stereotypes and Mathematics

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The Truth About Gender Stereotypes and Mathematics

Back in 2005, Larry Summers — then, the president of Harvard University — was asked to speak about the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. In his remarks, he suggested that women have difficulty finding success in these fields because of innate gender differences in our mathematical abilities — he called it our “intrinsic aptitude.”

This prompted a massive outcry, in and outside the world of academia. Even after issuing an apology, the comments led to his resignation the following year. Summers likely didn’t know it at the time, but he was echoing one of the oldest gender stereotypes in the book.

And although we have decades of research disproving it time and again, one need look no further than James Damore’s 2017 Google memo — which asserts that “women are biologically less capable of engineering” — to confirm the stereotype is still alive and well.

We are officially adding our voices to the chorus: The idea that women are inherently bad at math — and anything it involves — is a myth!

Looking at the Numbers

Of all the myths we’ve chosen to bust, this is probably the one you’re most familiar with. For generations, women have been told they aren’t as skilled at math as their male peers, and as a result, they’ve been steered toward pursuing careers in the humanities rather than science, technology, engineering and finance.

People who echo Summers’ claim say research is on their side, but since the 1980s, a litany of studies have thoroughly debunked this notion. One well-known meta-analysis found that female students have consistently earned slightly higher grades than their male counterparts in all fields of study since 1914.

Yes, you read that correctly — for more than a century! And when you look at a combined high school grade point average for math and science specifically, girls have been outperforming boys for at least 25 years.

Although the gender differences are generally small, one team of researchers stated the sheer consistency of female achievement suggests their findings “should not be ignored.”

To be clear, although we earn better grades, boys still do receive higher math scores on standardized tests like the SAT, ACT and advanced placement exams. But the gap has grown smaller over time — in the early 1980s, there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam. That ratio has now shrunk to about three to one. Clearly, it won’t be long before this gap is closed entirely.

When We Reinforce Gender Stereotypes, Everyone Loses

The bad news is that despite their impressive gains in test scores, girls are still internalizing the message that they aren’t as smart as the boys around them. Researchers at Dartmouth College and Northwestern University found that reminding women of gender stereotypes before an exam not only heightened their anxiety but also caused them to underutilize the regions of the brain associated with mathematical learning.

Even the mere acknowledgement of gender can hamper girls’ achievement — when female students were asked to identify their gender before taking an AP calculus exam, they performed worse than the female students who were asked to identify it after the exam. This little box is estimated to keep nearly 5,000 female students a year from earning advanced calculus credit!

Unfortunately, the consequences of these stereotypes endure long into adulthood. When those female students become adults and start to face questions about personal finance and investing, they often assume those topics require high-level mathematical expertise and doubt their ability to handle it. A 2016 survey found that when tested on financial literacy and diversification, women were much more likely than men to choose the answer “do not know.” But when researchers removed this option as a potential answer, the chances of women choosing the correct response increased significantly.

So, how do we make sure this myth stays in the past, where it belongs?

In Our Experience

Mathematical expertise is not an innate characteristic; it’s a skill set that improves with effort and practice. Even if you still have nightmares about your high school algebra class, you are capable of learning about the fundamentals of investing.

That said, you don’t have to know it all. The financial media is full of superfluous terminology and analysis, which can give a lot of women the false impression that they’re too dimwitted to understand the field. In truth, there are only a few key principles you need to understand to be a good investor.

On a personal note, Diane Bourdo, president of The Humphreys Group, was an English major as an undergrad and refined the art of avoiding math and science during her tenure at the University of Wisconsin. Fast forward to a few years later, and she discovered the absolute joy and certainty of calculus! The precision of math came as a relief after so many years of free-form essay exams.

Want to learn more about money myths? Download our free eBook Rewriting the Rules: Telling Truths About Women and Money and/or reach out to us today.