Source: University of British Columbia
Women's Math Performance Affected by Theories on Sex Differences: UBC Researchers
October 19, 2006
editors: UBC provides ISDN lines for radio interviews and a TV studio with
fibre optic access to facilitate double-ender interviews.]
Women perform differently on math tests depending on whether they believe
math-related gender differences are determined by genetic or social
differences, according to University of British Columbia researchers.
In a paper published in today’s issue of Science magazine, UBC investigators
Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven Heine explore how women’s math performance is
affected by stereotypes that link female underachievement to either genetic
or experiential causes.
Women and math is a controversial topic that led to the 2006 resignation of
Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard who speculated that one of
the potential reasons why women are represented less in math and science
professions is that fewer women than men have the intrinsic ability required
by such jobs.
Dar-Nimrod and Heine’s research suggests that women tend to perceive gender
differences in math to be innate or genetic, but when women consider such
differences to be based on theories of nurture rather than nature, they can
improve their performance.
"Our study doesn’t explore whether innate sex differences exist," says
Dar-Nimrod, a Psychology doctoral student. "Instead, we investigated how the
perceived source of stereotypes can influence women’s math performance."
"The findings suggest that people tend to accept genetic explanations as if
they’re more powerful or irrevocable, which can lead to self-fulfilling
prophecies," says Assoc. Prof. Heine, who teaches in the Dept. of
"But experiential theories may allow a woman to say this stereotype doesn’t
apply to me," says Heine.
Between 2003 and 2006, Dar-Nimrod and Heine conducted their research with
more than 220 female participants. Their study provided participants with
bogus scientific explanations for alleged sex differences in math.
Some women received a genetic account of inborn traits to explain the
difference while others received an experiential account – such as math
teachers treating boys preferentially during the first years of math
education. Other participants were reminded of the stereotype about female
math underachievement, or were told that there are no sex differences in
Heine and Dar-Nimrod found the worse math performances belonged to women who
received a genetic explanation for female underachievement in math or those
who were reminded of the stereotype about female math underachievement.
Women who received the experiential explanation performed better – on par
with those who were led to believe there are no sex differences in math.
The researchers say the media should report on genetic research with greater
"We should be mindful of how science is interpreted, especially genetic
explanations where you often see grossly simplified media stories that
report on genes for homosexuality, genes for obesity or genes for thrill
seeking," says Dar-Nimrod.
"The reports themselves have the potential to undermine people’s
motivations. If I believe that genes have a deterministic influence on my
weight, will I still struggle to keep up with my diet and exercise routine?"
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NB: Detailed results are published in the Oct. 19 edition of the journal
Science. For a copy of the paper, contact Natasha Pinol, AAAS/ Science,
202.326.7088, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.