Thursday, October 26, 2006

Gender bias in Math skills : a case of Traits Vs. Environment/Effort feedback?

A recent news article reports on a study that demonstrates that the gender bias in Math abilities may be due to environmental and cultural effects - specifically as a result of the negative self- perception garnered by the activation of the negative stereotype of women as having grossly inferior mathematical abilities than men.

The experiment involved giving 220 female study participants bogus scientific explanations for alleged sex differences in math and then having them write math tests. Those who were given a 'nature' explanation - that women have differential genetic composition than men and the cause of their low maths abilities was genetic and gender based - performed poorly on the Math tests compared to the group that was told that their math skills depended on how they were raised and were given a 'nurture' explanation and an experiential account of the sex differences such as math teachers treating boys preferentially during the first years of math education.

In the control condition some females were told that no sex differences exist while another group was reminded (primed) of the stereotype about female math under-achievement.

The worst performance was for genetic explanation females, followed by 'stereotype primed' females. Those who were given an experiential explanation performed as well or better than the control group that received the feedback that there were no sex differences in Math abilities.

While the authors analyze and explain the results in terms of the 'Stereotype theory' - that genetic explanations lead to more negative stereotypes and that activation of the negative stereotype affects performance- a more parsimonious explanations is that the differences can be explained by the same differential outcomes that are observed in people who have a genetic or trait-like versus an effort-driven or skill-like view of abilities. I have discussed previously how these differential view of abilities may develop and the experiment above has just the right conditions to induce such a differential view.

Those who were given a genetic explanation of sex differences in math abilities, may have formed a trait-like view of Math ability and were prone to see the ability as stable, genetic and immutable. This is the same view of math ability that would be formed if they had been given generic feedback - like "you are a math prodigy".

Those who had been given experiential explanations of sex differences would have been more prone to form a skill-like view of math abilities and assume that the ability could be improved and honed based on environmental inputs like proper teaching, guidance, strategy or efforts. This would have been the case if they had been given 'specific' feedback - like "you solved this math problem very well this time".

It is evident that a large part of the difference in the math test results observed in genetic vs experiential explanation conditions can be explained by the different view about math abilities that these experiments had induced. Those who were having the trait-like view of math ability would get frustrated while tackling a difficult problem and would be less resilient and effort-full while tackling the latter, more easy, problem on the test; as they would have formed a negative self-perception as one who has little mathematical talent. On the other hand, those who had been induced to form a skill-like view of math ability, would have been more resilient and effort-full when tackling latter problems, despite some early failures, as a failure would not have led to a resigned sate of mind, but would have only resulted in a belief that the strategies or effort or earlier training had not been sufficient to solve the particular problem.

It is not my contention that negative stereotype activation has no role to play- priming with stereotype words does lead to measurable effects on performance - but in this case, even if the stereotype activation is involved, the stereotype may be instrumental in activating the differential view of mathematical abilities and its effects mediated by the effects that such views have on test performances.

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