The World Bank has published a paper on the transmission of gender biases from parents to children, and how this contributes to the wide gender gap in mathematics. Two researchers, Alex Eble and Feng Hu, used a nationally representative Chinese dataset of 7th and 9th graders and their parents, as well as test scores and their life-long aspirations to look at gender bias questions. The questions asked of the subjects reaffirm the widely-held stereotype that boys are better than girls at mathematics, with 58% of boys and 47% of girls in the sample agreeing with the statement. However, when test scores were analysed, girls outperformed the boys. The channel through which said bias gets transmitted is the parents of the school-going children. The researchers found that the more parents of students in a certain class believed in the stereotype, the more likely their wards are to believe in it as well despite the evidence. This translated into—very damagingly for women in STEM—girl students whose parents believed in the stereotype scoring lower in maths tests than their peers whose parents didn’t espouse such believes.
These stereotypes are not only accepted by the students, but are internalised and manifest themselves in real-life performance. The researchers found that an increase in bias against girls and their mathematical abilities not only led to lower performances for girls in math tests but also to no significant improvements in their English and Chinese test scores. These stereotypes find a reflection in the Nobel prizes, too. Only three women have ever been awarded the Nobel prize in physics, though the chance of having only male winners in between 1990 and 2013, when all Prizes were awarded to men, was under 2%. This suggests that the trend of girls outperforming boys in math and other subjects is likely insufficient in countering the widely-held stereotype that women are inferior to men at learning math, and in STEM subjects, more broadly. Deliberate policy intervention is required to ensure that such misinformation stops harming the development of young women across geographies and fields of study where it persists.