The stereotype that men surpass women in the mathematical and scientific fields has existed for decades. However, researchers from Brigham Young University, University of Miami and Rutgers University recently performed an experiment to challenge that stereotype and the gender gap associated with it.
In their report — which was published by the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization and appeared in a EurekAlert public release Feb. 25 — researchers concluded women are as proficient as men in mathematics when altering the conditions of a competitive environment.
Why study gender gaps?
Joe Price, the lead researcher of the study and an assistant professor of economics at BYU, said the concept for his experiment arose out of a couple primary concerns.
“We’re getting to the point where there are more girls in college than boys, but there are some occupations that men are much more represented,” Price said.
He listed CEOs and partners in law firms as a couple examples of typically male-dominated professions.
“If women don’t do as well in competitive settings, they won’t do as well in these professions or will drop out of those occupations.”
Price said this was one reason why he and researchers began studying the gender gap’s presence in academic and competitive environments. With the influx of women’s enrollment in college, he said it has become increasingly important for researchers to investigate the causes — and resolutions — of gender gaps.
Between 2000 and 2010, colleges experienced a 39-percent increase in female enrollment, as compared to the 35-percent increase among males, according to a report by the Institute of Education Sciences. This number is expected to increase greatly over the next decade.
Price said a portion of his motivation for the study was personal. He is a math enthusiast and a father of two girls.
“[I was] really motivated to find math competitions that girls could thrive in,” Price said.
Price said females are generally more intimidated by competitive environments than males. This prompted researchers to conduct the experiment in students’ typical school classrooms rather than at BYU. This way, girls would feel more comfortable engaging in the competitions.
In the experiment, Price said he and researchers designed a series of in-class math competitions using about 500 students — both girls and boys — from 24 elementary schools in Utah.
According to the study’s online release on EurekAlert, paired-off students competed against each other to see who could correctly answer the most math questions during a five-minute quiz. The competition consisted of five total rounds and in each round students competed against a new opponent.
Winners earned raffle tickets for small prizes and, in the case of a tie, the student who finished the quiz first won.
Prior to the experiment, researchers acquired students’ test scores to compare how similarly intelligent boys and girls performed in identical competitive settings.
Although these paired opponents appeared evenly matched on paper, boys defeated girls in the first round.
However, after the first round, females competed evenly with males — and even better — for the remainder of the competition.
To determine whether the competitive environments contributed to female intimidation, researchers instructed six classrooms to de-emphasize the time component of the competition. Although the quizzes were still five minutes long, winners of ties were not determined by who finished first and students were repeatedly told the quiz was “not a race.”
Price said these adjustments changed the results dramatically. With these simple adjustments, girls felt less intimidated and matched the boys from the start.
Price said earlier studies determined that girls underperform relative to boys in competitive settings, especially in math-based ones. However, he said his own results shed new light on past studies.
“I knew what these bodies of literature said coming in,” Price said. “What I didn’t know coming in is there are ways to make it [the gender gap] go away.”
Price said making this gender gap disappear is not only possible — it’s simple.
“What we learned is you can make it go away by having participants compete in multiple rounds of a competition,” he said. “You can also make it go away by changing the nature of environment, like taking away pressure or telling them it isn’t a race.”
Why the gender gap exists
Researchers said determining the cause of gender gaps is equally important as solving the problems associated with them.
Patricia Rieker, a professor of sociology at Boston University, specializes in the effects of gender, specifically with regards to public health. She said ideas of biological differences between males and females might have contributed to the creation of gender gaps.
“People thought that men and women were biologically different, and that biology had consequences for things like intelligence,” Rieker said.
She said this idea led to the educational deprivation of females, allowing men to develop skills women could not acquire without an education.
“The fact that they had a barrier in terms of education reaffirmed the idea that males were superior in terms of intellectual abilities, especially in terms of math,” Rieker said.
Maya Seshadri, a College of Communication junior, said a disparity of confidence between genders is likely a contributor to the gap.
“Boys don’t stress as much as much as girls do because they’re more confident in their abilities to perform in those time-constrained situations,” Seshadri said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say we ‘underperform’ compared to boys in these situations, but we definitely disappoint ourselves a lot more than boys do.”
However, Justin Friedman, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said females handle competitive environments better than the study claims.
“I don’t think that women are actually worse at dealing with high pressure situations or competitive environments,” Friedman said. “There are women who do great under pressure and those who don’t, and the same thing goes for men”
Eliminating the gap
Rieker and Price noted that the gender gap is disappearing in many aspects of both social and academic life.
Price described the increase of female participation in sports as an example of this.
“If you look at sports participation we’ve made huge gains in terms of the reaction of women who engage in high school sports,” he said. “Girls are doing just as well as boys are in these competitions. The thing is getting them to stick with it.”
Girls are doing just as well as boys in academic fields as well, Rieker explained. In fact, they often perform better than their male counterparts.
“Women are graduating with higher grades in high school and more women are going to college,” Rieker said.
She said while women have typically dominated “emotionally intelligent” professions like nursing and teaching, more are pursuing “higher-status” professions.
“Now that these options and opportunities are greater, we may see them [women] entering into these occupations and careers in larger numbers,” she said.
However, being rid of gaps entirely requires the efforts of both men and women. Rieker said eliminating stereotypes that often make women feel inferior to men is a large part of this.
“It took a long time for women to believe that they weren’t inferior to men and to believe it [math] was a skill that could be developed,” Rieker said. “To do this, people had to clear up stereotypes and assumptions.”
Alyssa Thomason, a CAS sophomore, said stereotypes about gender could influence gender gaps, but overcoming them could eliminate such gaps entirely.
“If a girl grows up believing that men are better at math and science, she will have lower expectations of herself and not be as likely to perform her best,” Thomason said. “I don’t struggle with that any more because I see myself as a hard-working individual not as a slave to the stereotype of my gender.”