Don’t expect much of yourself, sweetie

A recent illuminating New York Times article about gender bias in math and science makes an interesting point about human behavior:

The university women’s report cited research showing that girls’ performance suffers from any suggestion that they do poorly at math. In one experiment, college students with strong math backgrounds and similar abilities were divided into two groups and tested on math. One group was told that men perform better on the test, the other that there was no difference in performance between the sexes. Their results were starkly different: in the group told that men do better, men indeed did much better, with an average score of 25 compared with the women’s 5. In the group told there was no difference, women scored 17 and men 19.

Any suggestion of advantage based on sex affects results, the research shows, even where there is no cultural stereotype.

The upshot of that and another similar experiments seems to be: if you tell a mixed group “Men typically outperform women on this” the men rise to their heightened expectations and the women put less effort into it, meeting the lower expectations set for them.We humans learn our self-expectations from what our authority figures expect of us. If you grow up with a parent who expects you’ll end up in jail sooner or later, like the rest of the family, your chances of ending up in jail are heightened. If you’re expected to make As in school, your chances of doing that are heightened. Sure, eventually, we can learn to resent unfair (low or high) expectations and set our own self-expectations. But that takes more life experience than most teens have.

What happens when educators and occupational mentors are taught “Expect less of the women and girls”? They adjust their teaching methods – either they make less effort with the women and girls since they’re expecting little return on investment, or they overcompensate with remedial attention that doesn’t stimulate the students’ intellects. Or they try to make up a whole new curriculum designed to reach their idea of young women – little princesses who love shoes and can’t decide which suitor to marry. (Reminds me of what’s going so very wrong with gender segregated classes in public schools).

Further problems occur down the line. Even when girls aren’t actively discouraged by professors from going into their chosen profession, rational people tend to choose professions where they believe they’ll do well, right? This report also found that when girls and boys have the same scores on math exams, girls rate their math abilities lower than the boys rate their own. Just as stereotypes distort girls’ self-images of their bodies, they distort girls’ perceptions of their mental abilities, leading young women to choose professions and career paths they won’t find fulfilling.

The report also talks about how the ratio of boys to girls among precocious math students (as measured by SAT math scores) has shrunk so much in the past thirty years, it can’t be an evolutionary issue. Evolution doesn’t happen that fast. But cultural changes can turn on one generation.

And yet in 2005, the president of Harvard suggested that biology is the main factor in girls being less mathematically capable than boys, with socialization and discrimination as “lesser factors” in the issue.


  1. sbg says

    It really makes me wonder if I didn’t do as well in mathematics as other subjects not because I simply wasn’t interested (always been my stance), or if I simply wasn’t interested because I was being taught in a way that suggested to me that I shouldn’t be interested.


    • Demonhype says

      You read my mind.

      I sucked so bad at math all my life that I just figured that it was something I couldn’t do–or else, no one who understands it is able to explain it to me so I can understand it too.

      Then I took a couple of classes in college–I had some extra grants and no other necessary classes. They weren’t hugely challenging, but were about the same level as the math that I was such a dismal failure at back in the day.

      This time, because I wanted to learn and I had some great teachers (female teachers!) who expected as much from the girls as the guys and were every bit as willing to help a girl understand as a guy without any of the typical discouragement, I did GREAT! And I LOVED IT! I have concluded that a lot of my earlier failure had to do with the preconceived notions and attitudes of my HS teachers (all men) and their lack of interest in actually teaching me.

      And now, despite my being a fluffy traditional artist with an animation degree who partially got into that because I was terrified of anything mathish, I was the one building the rigs for my production class (that’s one of the more math-and-logic-related parts of 3D animation, BTW, and the part that most artist/animators hate/avoid/suck at). Out of six students, four being boys, I was the one doing the part that everyone says only boys are good at–and I’m constantly reworking the rigs and learning new tricks to improve my understanding!

      I don’t think that better math teaching would have gotten me into math, but I might have gone into science if I hadn’t been afraid of math. That was a huge factor in my decision to scrap science as a possible career. But I truly love animation and now that I am not afraid of math I feel like I can really be a force to contend with, because huge chunks of the increasingly-digitized medium are no longer barred to me!

      Well, I guess that just proves I’m deranged, huh? *eyeroll*

  2. says

    I agree that this makes me question my perception of myself as a “humanities geek” and definitely not a “math/science geek” when I know that I always tested very well in math on standardized tests, gifted classes, etc . . .

  3. Towanda says

    I’ve always been quite good at math, usually outperforming the boys in my classes. I’ve always wondered if subconsciously the Asian stereotype (good at math) canceled out the female stereotype (bad at math), or if I was just good at math and didn’t care what anyone expected of me.

  4. AmyMcCabe says

    My husband will readily admit that despite the fact that I can’t carry numbers well in my head, I’m much more mathematically inclined than he is. He knows not to ask me 5 + 4 (at least out loud in writing I’m all good) but issues involving complex math or math-like reasoning? He comes to me. :)

  5. says

    SBG and Shannon: ditto. I always scored well on placement tests, and I always somehow managed to make the grades. But my perception was that I sucked at math (definitely not true – it’s just not my best subject) and didn’t like it (still not sure if that’s true or not). But I definitely had teachers who weren’t good at conveying the material and made it frustrating. What would’ve happened if I’d had better teachers?

    @Ross, great article! And I LOL’d at this: “A female friend once said, “How can we be good at math when men tell us that something 6 inches long is actually 12 inches long?”

    @Towanda, I was wondering how the stereotypes intersect for Asian girls. Maybe it depends on parental expectations and support, too? Just thinking aloud.

    @Amy, that’s an interesting distinction you’re making between doing it in your head and writing it down. Because we have this idea that someone who can do math in her head is smarter than someone who has to write it down, but isn’t it more a difference between leaning toward oral or visual learning styles? Or something like that.

  6. says

    Very interesting, and not surprising! I was homeschooled and during my high school years we were part of a small (5-6 families) homeschool co-op through our place of worship. It was interesting learning some of the teaching methods my best friends were receiving at home and how it affected them. One couple had a pair of twins (boy/girl) and I was very close with them both. The boy was “better” at everything. Very into math, science, engineering and so forth. The girl was an accomplished pianist but always talked about how terrible she was with math, spelling, etc. Thing was, the boy really was not that good in our shared school subjects (like chemistry) and only marginally better than his sister. His grammar and spelling was atrocious. They lived in a rural area and he was allowed to bike MILES farther (alone) than his sister. She could go only if he was with her.

    Alot of this came through their mother. She made a remark to my mother once about how “math is hard for girls” which sent my mom into fits. To this day, ten plus years down the line, we still quote frequently (usually when we’re feminist-ranting about this or that) how math is HARD for girls!

    AmyMcCabe – My husband and I are the same way. He figures quickly in his head, but while I always did well with math, I am sloooooow at it. I can do it well, I just am terrible at doing it quickly. So for more involved questions he’ll come to me (“How much will it cost in gas money for this trip?”) and for the quick 8×9 type stuff I go to him. Interesting!

  7. Mel says

    @Towanda: I think there have been studies about this that support that wondering, but I’m afraid I can’t remember offhand where I saw them.

    But I know I’ve seen similar studies that compared performance between different racial groups after similar priming and found the same kinds of results: people told their group does poorly will do more poorly.

  8. Elee says

    I know, I performed best in subjects, where I liked the teacher, regardless of subject, even in my most hated ones like sports. Somehow I became much worse in math and physics in my highschool years, so that my former math teacher and my family wondered why, because math was my strongest subject continually (I had an absolutely wonderful teacher, hard as rock and demanding, but so full of passion for her subject – how could I not fall for it too?) Still wondering, if maybe it was a problem with staff, or my own change of interest or hormones, or everything.

  9. Robin says

    Luckily this didn’t happen to me, but one of my friends growing up (I’ll call her K) was discouraged from pursuing advanced classes by our seventh grade math teacher, despite the fact that she’d decided around age 8 that she wanted to be a biochemist. In order to get into the fast-track eighth grade algebra class, we had to be recommended by said teacher, but K wasn’t. Two years later, not to be defeated, K doubled up on Geometry and Algebra 2 and eventually wound up with early acceptance and a hefty scholarship to the biochem program at Worcester Polytech. Since then, I’ve always been a little bit in awe of her determination.

  10. Anemone says

    Theoretically, I know this happens, but it wasn’t an issue in the milieu I grew up in. We were all expected to be math/science geeks, because so many of the adults in our environment were.

    Where things broke down for me was not the “math is hard” trope, but the part where no one was interested in the results. I got good grades at school but that was the ceiling. There was no concept in my environment that I could actually develop and use this further, and you know, maybe even make society better. I was good at math. Of course I was good at math. Duh. “But so what? We want to talk about other things.” I wasn’t allowed to do anything with it. It makes it easy to burn out.

    I remember in Grade 10, when I went on a student exchange to Europe, and I sat in on a US math class at a NATO school, and they did advanced math – graphs with asymptotes – and I was fascinated. I could hardly wait till we studied this at my school. We finally got to a few basic examples in Grade 13, but they were much simpler, and then that was it. My heart broke. I’m still sad about it.

    I recently published a statistical paper, and it is no end of frustrating to me that people generally are completely uninterested in what I’ve done. I have no one to really play with numbers with. :(

    I think they get you coming and going.

  11. Karakuri says

    What really gets me is that you often can’t tell if the teacher gives you less attention or expects less because of your gender, or because you genuinely lack interest in the subject. Or, if your lack of interest in the subject is your own, or the result of your environment. That uncertainty is just one more distraction from the sort of concentration needed to excel at something, it severely sabotages your performance (though I guess it depends on how self-conscious you are).

    In day-to-day life I tend to suspect cases of lackluster treatment are caused by gender expectations, because as a kid I was in a pretty progressive environment and I was NEVER considered to be dumber than the boys. It was only in late high school that I started feeling it, and so did my grades. Just the time when you start being considered a woman. But because I’m not /sure/ it was sexism, the only way I can keep my dignity in other people’s eyes is to not complain, to not “turn it into an issue” – because, they tell you, a /man/ wouldn’t start making excuses for his failures.

    The problem is that’s how so many “great” men achieve – they single mindedly pursue a goal, they defy social expectations, transcend their limits, and — ignore unfairness! – and for a woman to take that path she has to fight so much harder, every step of the way, without complaint – because to admit unfairness exists and try to work around that is to stop playing the game, to be derailed from the path that REAL men take – taking responsibility (and thus a sense of power and control) for your life, without complaining. Following that method, you have to suffer inequality silently, and not following it shows all the men around you that you are, in fact, only a woman.

    I’m generalizing, but that’s how it feels nonetheless. And every time you happen to be in competetition with men, the thought is very distracting. Debilitatingly so. (I hope there are plenty of women out there who are better at concentrating on their so-called men’s work than I am.)

  12. InsideInfo says

    Larry Summers is most definitely a dickwad of the highest order, and his remarks were divisive and unnecessary- his defense that he was “trying to be provocative” is bollocks. But, you might as well report accurately what he is alleged to have said.

    Since there’s no transcript of the 2005 speech, we have to rely on the reports of witnesses. They basically said that Summers was testing the idea that women don’t hold more powerful positions in math and science because most importantly they don’t *want* to work 80-hour weeks, and secondly, there’s a possibility that women have less “innate ability” in those fields than do men. Even though he doesn’t seem to have grasped the difference between *wanting* something and *being socialized* for something, he did place secondary importance on the heinous suggestion of less innate ability.

    I was working at Harvard when he gave that speech, and I know (innocent, feminist) people who lost their jobs when Larry was ousted from the presidency. Trust and believe I have parsed that speech endlessly over the last five years.

  13. says

    Insideinfo, my source was the NYT article linked above. From your link:

    “Summers suggested that behavioral genetics could partially explain this phenomenon.

    Freeman and Goldin both said that after Summers’ mentioned the “innate differences” hypothesis, he explicitly told the audience: “I’d like to be proven wrong on this one.””

    If he’d like to be proven wrong, clearly he believes innate lacks in women are part of the problem. That’s unacceptable.

    Additionally, there is no more horseshit question in this mess than “Do you want to work 80 hours a week?” Are there men who sincerely want that? I would guess they’re psychologically damaged, then. Being WILLING to do that and WANTING to do that are two different ballgames. An important aspect of feminism has always been the attempt to reclaim FOR BOTH GENDERS that which never should have been taken away from us by our overlords who just can’t ever get enough. For example, I think it’s completely wrong that women don’t have to sign up for the draft same as men. But the much, much better answer would be to get rid of the draft. I also favor getting rid of 80 hour work weeks as a norm, for men as well as women. No one is very human after an 80 hour work week – believe me, I have plenty of first and second hand experience.

    Additionally, it should be remembered that despite improvements in male attitudes toward “women’s chores”, when most women contemplate working 80 hours a week in a job, what most of them are really being asked to contemplate is more like a 100-hour work week once you factor in all the chores and errand running they do outside work. For men, it’s really just an 80 hour week.

  14. Elee says

    @Karakuri: You’ve got me thinking about the uncertainty of what caused my change of interest and I think, the gender expectations might have played a bigger role in it than I thought. Now that I reflect on that time, there were several changes, not only the math thing, but also my friends (before I prefered company of boys, but around that time I suddenly found myself surrounded by girls more an more, I remember how dismayed I was to be stuck with dolls who only talked about who fancied whom instead of digging out worms and crawl on trees). Perhaps one of the factors was that my body begun to develop and I was much more visibly female, so not only were adults expecting more feminine behaviour from me but also my previous friends had difficulty to reconcile what they knew and what they saw. Interesting.

  15. Sally says

    For a thoroughly splendid refutation of ‘biologism’ (and the Louann Brizendine “Female/Male Brain” crap) see Cordelia Fine, “Delusions of Gender,” published in 2010 by Allen & Unwin in Australia, Icon in UK and WW Norton in US.


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