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How dads influence their daughters' interest in math

  • Contact Diane Swanbrow
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—It figures: Dads have a major impact on the degree of interest their daughters develop in math. That's one of the findings of a long-term University of Michigan study that has traced the sources of the continuing gender gap in math and science performance.

"We've known for a while now that females do as well as males on tests that measure ability in math and science," said Pamela Davis-Kean, a psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). "But women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math graduate programs and in careers based on those disciplines."

It's as if women are saying, "I can, but I don't want to," according to Davis-Kean.

In a study she presented recently at a campus meeting, Davis-Kean and colleagues analyzed how parents' values and attitudes affect children's math performance and later interest, and how these attitudes vary by the child's gender. They used data from a longitudinal study of more than 800 children and a large group of their parents that began in 1987 and continued through 2000.

They found that parents provided more math-supportive environments for their sons than for their daughters, including buying more math and science toys for the boys. They also spent more time on math and science activities with their sons than with their daughters.

Davis-Kean and colleagues, including the late Janis Jacobs of Pennsylvania State University, Martha Bleeker of Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., and U-M psychologists Jacquelynne Eccles and Oksana Malanchuk, also found that parents' attitudes, particularly stereotypes they hold about whether math and science are more important for boys than for girls, have a significant effect on their children's later math achievement, and even on their eventual career choices.

Their research was funded by a National Science Foundation grant on Women, Minorities and Information Technology.

They found that girls' interest in math decreases as their fathers' gender stereotypes increase, whereas boys' interest in math increases as their fathers' gender stereotypes increase.

"Fathers' gender stereotypes are very important in supporting?or in undermining?daughters' choices to pursue training in math and science," Davis-Kean said.

Davis-Kean discussed these findings at "Educating a STEM Workforce: New Strategies for U-M and the State of Michigan," a one-day conference held May 21 on the U-M campus. Co-sponsored by the U-M College of Engineering, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Office of the Vice President for Research, and the Institute for Social Research (ISR), the conference brought together researchers from a variety of disciplines to discuss research on developing a competitive and innovative workforce well grounded in math and science. For more information on the conference, visit the conference website

Established in 1948, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest academic 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 Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American 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.

ISR Gender and Achievement Research ProgramRelated charts