Women's math performance affected by theories on sex differences: UBC researchers

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 to be published in the Oct. 19 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 Psychology.

"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 experientia

Contact: Lorraine Chan
University of British Columbia

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