Even in more developed countries where larger proportions of mothers work in science-related fields, girls experience so many negative emotions about math that often they avoid the subject altogether. New research suggests factors beyond performance are driving higher rates of math anxiety in girls.
“We analyzed student performance in 15-year-olds from around the world along with socioeconomic indicators in more than 60 countries and economic regions, including the US and the United Kingdom,” says David Geary, professor of psychological science at the University of Missouri.
“Analysis revealed that girls’ mathematics anxiety was not related to the level of their mothers’ engagement in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers, nor was it related to gender equality in the countries we studied.
“In fact, the gender difference in mathematics anxiety was larger in more gender-equal and developed countries. In more developed countries, boys’ and girls’ mathematics performance was higher and their mathematics anxiety was lower, but this pattern was stronger for boys than for girls.”
In 59 percent of the countries analyzed, gender anxiety differences are more than twice the magnitude of gender differences in mathematics performance, suggesting there is more to the story than performance alone.
The study also analyzed the possible role of parental views on the value and importance of mathematics for their daughters and sons. Perhaps, surprisingly, parents in more developed countries placed a stronger emphasis on the math ability of their sons than their daughters—despite the fact that more developed countries have larger proportions of mothers working in STEM fields.
“Policies to attract more girls and women into subjects such as computer science, physics, and engineering have largely failed,” says Gijsbert Stoet, reader in psychology at the University of Glasgow and coauthor of the study published in PLOS ONE.
“Gender equality is a key humanistic value in enlightened and developed societies, but our research shows that policymakers cannot rely on it as the sole factor in getting more girls into subjects like physics and computer science. It is fair to say that nobody knows what will actually attract more girls into these subjects. Policies and programs to change the gender balance in non-organic STEM subjects have just not worked.”