Are girls bad at math? From a talking Barbie doll saying "Math class is tough" to Larry Summers, the ex-President of Harvard University, speaking on the "different availability of aptitude," it's an issue that's seen plenty of controversy. As one of the most sensitive topics in education today, there's plenty of research on it, and even a body of research on the research.
A study to be published in Review of General Psychology, falls into the latter category. Its authors, David Geary of the University of Missouri and Giljsbert Stoet of the University of Leeds, find that if a gender gap in math test scores exists, it isn't a manifestation of the so-called "stereotype threat" theory, as many researchers seem to believe.
According to that theory, girls tend to perform worse on tests after they've been told they'll do poorly. Geary and Stoet found that past studies relying on the theory were flawed and lacking real evidence. This suggests that if girls are scoring worse than boys on standardized math tests, it's not because of their low self esteem.
In other words, don't blame ditzy Barbie.
The new finding suggests that it might make sense to scale back social programs designed to counter the stereotype threat. As Geary noted:
“The stereotype theory really was adopted by psychologists and policy makers around the world as the final word, with the idea that eliminating the stereotype could eliminate the gender gap...However, even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem continued. We now believe the wrong problem is being addressed.”
Geary and Stoat make no contention about the gender gap itself. Their study makes a strong case for ruling out a self esteem-based explanation of the gender gap, but an increasing number of scientists believe the gender gap is illusory in the first place.
Recent years have brought mounting evidence against the idea that, other things being equal, women are worse at math than men. A 2011 study published in Psychological Bulletin found evidence of gender gaps in various countries, but noted that in some countries, such as Jordan and Bahrain, girls had the edge.