More girls think they are bad at maths than boys, even when they are not. And it turns out that it is this low level of confidence that stops many women from pursuing higher education in science and engineering, according to a new study. When it comes to mathematics, girls rate their abilities markedly lower than boys, even when there is no observable difference between the two, the study found.
“The argument continues to be made that gender differences in the ‘hard’ sciences is all about ability,” said lead study author Lara Perez-Felkner, Assistant Professor at Florida State University in the US.
“But when we hold mathematics ability test scores constant, effectively taking it out of the equation, we see boys still rate their ability higher, and girls rate their ability lower,” Perez-Felkner said.
Despite a surge in college enrollment and degree attainment for girls worldwide in recent decades, women continue to remain underrepresented in physics, engineering, mathematics and computer sciences (PEMC). The research team found perception gaps are even wider at the upper levels of mathematics ability — among those students with the most talent and potential in these fields.
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Boys are significantly more confident in challenging mathematics contexts than otherwise identically talented girls, showed the findings published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Specifically, boys rated their ability 27 per cent higher than girls did. The findings are based on a study that followed 10th grade students in the US over a six-year period.
A series of questions in the 10th and 12th grade surveys asked students to indicate their level of agreement with statements such as “I’m certain I can understand the most difficult material presented in math texts.”
“That’s important because those confidence levels influence the math and science courses students choose later in high school,” Perez-Felkner said. Women have a 4.7 per cent chance of declaring PEMC majors compared to 14.9 per cent of men, the study showed.