“Boys are better at math” is a stereotype decades in the making, and it has in some cases been borne out by testing measures such as the SAT. The stereotype has been around so long that many wonder whether the stereotype is the effect or the cause of any actual differences in math ability.
Many researchers have observed a “stereotype threat,” which occurs when test-takers are made aware that they are being tested in an area in which the stereotype suggests they’ll do poorly. For example, when boys and girls are given a math test and told that its purpose is to determine whether boys or girls are better at math, girls will do worse than when they take the same test and aren’t made aware of any stereotypes.
Simply distracting the test-takers from the stereotype by falsely attributing any test anxiety to something else about the testing environment has been shown to be enough remove the stereotype threat. Michael Johns, Toni Schmader, and Andy Martens were impressed by this phenomenon, but didn’t like the implication that you have to lie to test-takers in order to create a level playing field. So they tried something different. In a Psychological Science study, they attempted to “distract” female test-takers by teaching them about stereotype threat itself.
They tested three groups of male and female college students. In the first group, they told participants they were administering a “problem solving” test to assess general cognitive ability. In the second group, participants were told it was a “math test” to learn about gender differences in math ability. Finally, the third group was taught briefly about stereotype threat and indicated that any anxiety the women were feeling about taking the test may be due to stereotypes against women and were unrelated to their actual math ability.
Of course, each group was actually given the same test, composed of problems taken from the GRE quantitative exam. After taking the test, participants filled out a brief questionnaire in which they described their attitudes about stereotypes and provided their actual score on the mat SAT test.
Johns, Schmader, and Martens adjusted the test scores to account for differences in SAT and came up with the following results:
As expected, women scored dramatically lower when the test was described as a math test to study gender differences compared to scores on the (identical) “problem solving” test. But when they were alerted to stereotype threat, their scores rose again, to a level equivalent with the male test-takers. Simply alerting women to the possibility of stereotype threat completely eliminated the threat!
Johns, M., Schmader, T., & Martens, A. (2005). Knowing is half the battle: Teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women’s math performance. Psychological Science, 16(5), 175-179.