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Monday, 04 May 2009 19:31

Women: Don't sit next to men when doing math

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A U.S. study has shown that women will do better at mathematics when they are aware of only positive stereotypes (like college educated) but do worse when only aware of negative stereotypes (such as men being perceived as better in math). Plus, it is not good for women to even sit between two men while doing math problems!


Robert J. Rydell, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University (Bloomington), led a study that looked into women and their ability to perform complicated problems in mathematics.

The study by Rydell and collaborators (Allen R. McConnell and Sian L. Beilock) appears in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Its title is "Multiple Social Identities and Stereotype Threat: Imbalance, Accessibility, and Working Memory” (volume 96(5), May 2009, pages 949-966).

The authors state that they performed four experiments involving between 57 and 112 female undergraduate college students. In each experiment a certain number of females performed difficult math problems.

One group of the women were not given any information on stereotypes before doing the problems.

A second group of women were made aware of only negative stereotypes (such as men are better at math than women), while a third group were made aware of only positive stereotypes (such as college students perform better at math than non-college students).

A fourth group of women are made aware of both negative and positive stereotypes before doing the math problems.

Page two considers negative stereotypes, positive stereotypes, and both negative/positive stereotypes with women and math.




The researchers considered various groups of women and whether they were made aware of positive, negative or both positive and negative stereotypes with respect to math performance.

Only a negative stereotype


The researchers, as stated in their abstract, “… demonstrated that introducing negative stereotypes about women’s math performance activated participants’ female social identity and hurt their math performance (i.e., stereotype threat) by reducing working memory.”

Thus, when women were presented with only a negative stereotype before doing math problems (such as women do worse at math than men or, even, a situation where they sit between two men while performing math), they did more poorly in their math performance.

The researchers found that thinking about the negative stereotype while performing math problems caused them to use less of their brain for the math problem (and more for thinking about the negative thought)—thus, they did more poorly when doing the math.

Only a positive stereotype

When women were presented with only a positive stereotype before performing a math problem, they performed better at the mathematics problems.

Both negative and positive stereotypes

The researchers, as also stated in their abstract, “… showed that concurrently making positive and negative self-relevant stereotypes available about performance in the same ability domain can eliminate stereotype threat effects.”

That is, when women are aware of both negative and positive stereotypes with regards to math performance before doing math problems, they emphasis the positive stereotype rather than the negative one—thus performing better at math.

More is contained on page three.




And, the researchers also found: “… it was also demonstrated that concomitantly presenting a positive self-relevant stereotype (e.g., college students are good at math) increased the relative accessibility of females’ college student identity and inhibited their gender identity, eliminating attendant working memory deficits and contingent math performance decrements.”

Thus, they performed better on the math problems when presented a positive stereotype (such as, college students are better at math than non-college students) and when currently presented a negative stereotype (such as, women do worse at math than men) because they emphasizes the positive one over the negative stereotype.

Thus, their brains did not dwell on the negative stereotype and they used more of their brain to do the math problems.

This study is considered the first research study to have examined both negative and positive stereotypes at the same time—thus, what are considered “competing” stereotypes.

They concluded in their abstract, “This work identifies the motivated processes through which people’s social identities became active in situations in which self-relevant stereotypes about a stigmatized group membership and a nonstigmatized group membership were available. In addition, it demonstrates the downstream consequences of this pattern of activation on working memory and performance.”

Dr. Rydell states, "This research shows that because people are members of multiple social groups that often have contradictory performance stereotypes (for example, Asian females in the domain of math), making them aware of both a positive group stereotype and a negative stereotype eliminates the threat and underperformance that is usually seen when they dwell only on their membership in a negatively stereotyped group.” [EurekAlet.org/Indiana University: “Psyched out by stereotypes: IU research suggests thinking about the positive”]

In other words, one stereotype can be both positive and negative. Asian-Americans, for example, are perceived by Americans as being generally better in math. But, females are perceived by Americans as performing worse at math than men. Asian women, thus, would include both a positive and negative stereotype for Americans.

And, Rydell adds, “People seem motivated to align themselves with positively stereotyped groups and, as a byproduct, can eliminate the worry, stress and cognitive depletion brought about by negative performance stereotypes, increasing actual performance."

That is, think positive thoughts!

Rydell also states, "The activation of the stereotype is relatively automatic and hard to control. Whether you choose to endorse or believe the stereotype, however, is under your control. One option is to think about the positive groups you're associated with that are related to the task at hand." [EurekAlert.org/IU]

That is, you have the power to control your thoughts!

One study from the University of Wisconsin states that ther is no differences in the abilities of men and women to perform math. Read more about the July 24, 2008 UW News article at: "Study: No gender differences in math performance."

The author of the study (Dr. Janet Hyde) states, "Boys did a teeny bit better in some states, and girls did a teeny bit better in others. But when you average them all, you essentially get no difference."

Maybe the only difference is our perception of the difference. Stereotypes in most cases aren't true and accurate representations of any group of people.


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