Men significantly outnumber women in technology and science-related professions -- but it's not because they're more skilled in those areas.
New research suggests that the answer may lie not in men's skills or interests, but rather in the beliefs they hold about their abilities to do the complicated mathematics central to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
Researchers from Washington State University found that men tend to significantly overestimate their math abilities, while women are generally more accurate in their self-assessments.
For the study, 122 undergraduates at the university were asked to complete a math test and then guess how well they had performed on the test. In one experiment, the students were told their test scores and then were asked again to take a math test and predict their scores. In a second experiment, the students took the test without getting feedback about their scores but were asked whether they planned to pursue a math-related course of study or career.
The results revealed that the male students tended to overestimate their test scores, while the female students predicted their scores fairly accurately. Men were also more likely to say that they would pursue STEM-related classes or careers, likely attributable in part to their inflated confidence in their math skills, according to the study's author.
However, when both men and women were given feedback about their scores and then asked to retake the test, the perception gap all but disappeared.
"Gender gaps in the science, technology, engineering and maths fields are not necessarily the result of women's underestimating their abilities, but rather may be due to men's overestimating their abilities," Shane Bench, a postgraduate student at the university and the study's lead author, said in a statement.
A first step to narrowing the gap may be to ensure that girls and women receive constructive feedback about their math performance and opportunities to enjoy positive STEM experiences. Indeed, the findings revealed that women who had better STEM-related experiences in the past were more likely to overestimate how well they did on the test.
"Increasing women's positivity bias in academic domains... could be done by providing positive math experiences at a young age," Bench said in an email to The Huffington Post. "This could provide women with a more positively biased perception (overestimation) of performance, which could encourage the persistence needed to overcome challenge in the early stages, and persevere into STEM careers."
The findings were published this week in the journal Sex Roles.