Confidence in math predicts girls’ participation in STEM

Girls rank themselves less competent in math than boys, even when getting the same grades

Girls are more likely to pursue math careers if they are confident in their ability to do the toughest problems in the book, a new study shows. 

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A girl’s decision to take more classes in math or computer science may depend on whether she feels up to the challenge. But her confidence in her abilities may be lower than it should be. Even when male and female high school students receive the same math grades, girls tend to feel they are less competent than boys, a new study shows. And that may affect her choice to pursue science — or not.

The last years of high school and the first years of college are when girls are most likely to drip out of the science pipeline, says Lara Perez-Felkner. She’s a sociologist — someone who studies social interactions — at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “Really big choices fall during those years,” she notes. “Advanced math and science in high school often becomes optional.” And without those courses in high school, girls may continue to steer away from math- and science-heavy college majors.

Perez-Felkner and her colleagues wanted to know how students’ perception of their own abilities might influence what classes they take and careers they pursue. They turned to the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002. This study surveyed 16,200 10th-grade students drawn from 750 U.S. schools. The students were surveyed again their senior year of high school, in college and finally 10 years later, when the they were in their late 20s.

The scientists were especially interested in how much students agreed with statements such as “I’m certain I can understand the most difficult material presented in math texts.” The responses helped the researchers assess their confidence in various subjects.

Male and female 10th grade students had the same confidence in handling tough concepts in English, the surveys showed. But when it came to the confidence to tackle the toughest math problems, boys rated their own abilities much higher than girls — even though they were getting the same grades.

The researchers then looked at how a teen’s belief in their math abilities affected their choice to take more classes in math, physics, engineering or computer science (PEMC). These are all fields in which women are under-represented.

Math confidence predicted whether students stayed in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). But there were differences between boys and girls. Boys with the highest belief in their own math abilities in their senior year of high school had a 19 percent chance of being in a PEMC major in college. In contrast, a similar group of girls had only a 5.6 percent chance of pursuing those same majors. Boys with the lowest confidence still had a 6.7 percent chance of choosing a PEMC major, compared with only 1.8 percent for low-confidence girls.

A girl’s chance of going into a PEMC major was also associated with how much she believed in a “growth mindset.” This is the idea that abilities, such as an ability to do math, are not fixed at birth but can be learned, like a language. Girls who believed more strongly in a growth mindset were more likely to pursue careers in the physical sciences or math. Perez-Felkner and her colleagues published their findings April 6 in Frontiers in Psychology.

It’s especially important that the study looked at how confident students were about handling the toughest problems, says Jennifer Schmidt. She’s an educational psychologist who studies how people learn. She works at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “It’s easy for everyone to have a growth mindset when the work is easy,” she notes. “Challenge is where the rubber meets the road.”

Identifying these confidence gaps is the first step to making them disappear, Perez-Felkner says. “These beliefs…aren’t fixed in stone,” she says. “It’s not a natural way of looking at the world.” Instead, girls and boys are picking up on social cues and stereotypes about what they can and can’t do. Changing those messages, she says, could give more girls a growth mindset about math. With the belief that such abilities can be learned, she says, girls can “pursue challenges feeling like they can take more risks in math and science.”

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Bethany Brookshire is the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.