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What we learned from Barbie about women and math

  • Contact Diane Swanbrow
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—As if listening to an inner Teen Talk Barbie saying "Math is hard!" young women whose gender is central to their identity may be more vulnerable to underperforming in math.

According to a new study of college undergraduates, women who said that their gender was central to their self-concept and who also showed evidence of believing the stereotype that girls don't do math performed worse in an introductory calculus course than women who were less identified as being female and who did not show evidence of unconscious or implicit stereotyping.

Their math performance suffered even when the women explicitly rejected the notion that males are better at math than females, the researchers showed.

The study, conducted by psychologists Amy K. Kiefer at the University of California, San Francisco, and Denise Sekaquaptewa at the University of Michigan, was published in the January issue of Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.

To assess the presence of implicit stereotypes, researchers showed study participants lists of words, then measured their reaction times as they matched the words. Evidence for holding implicit stereotypes included linking words like "he" and "him" more quickly than "she" and "her" to math concepts like "calculate" and "compute," for example. For participants holding implicit stereotypes, female-related words were more quickly paired with arts and humanities concepts like "English" and "classics."

According to Sekaquaptewa, who is a member of the U-M Department of Psychology and a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), women who strongly agreed that their femininity was central to their sense of who they were and who also showed they held implicit gender stereotypes performed worse on the final exam and were less likely to express interest in a math-related career.

"This was true even when we controlled for SAT scores in math and prior performance in the calculus class," she said.

The majority of women in the study disagreed with the idea that men have superior math ability, the researchers noted. But even when women explicitly disavowed this stereotype, the speed with which they linked "male" and "math" indicated that many in fact linked the two concepts.

According to the authors, the research may provide insight into why women remain less likely than men to major in math or go into math-heavy professions like engineering or computer-science.

"It's the combination of embracing a feminine identity, which women are encouraged to do in our society, and of holding beliefs that math is for men, even when these beliefs are not consciously expressed," Sekaquaptewa said. "Such implicit beliefs are likely left over, like a residue, from stereotypic messages that women were exposed to while growing up."

The research was supported by a grant from the U-M Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information.