It’s by no means true that boys always outperform girls on math tests — in some countries, there’s no difference at all. But a gap does persist in the US and the UK, as does the stereotype that girls’ mathematical skills just naturally don’t measure up to boys’. Researchers at Cambridge University decided to look into one factor that might influence girls’ scores: anxiety. They found that girls were indeed more anxious about math than boys, and that anxiety could be holding them back.
For their study, published in Behavioral and Brain Functions, psychologist Amy Devine and her coauthors gave a math test to 433 British schoolkids, ages twelve to fifteen. They also gave the kids a standardized questionnaire to measure their anxiety about math. The girls didn’t actually score lower than the boys on the test, but they did have significantly higher anxiety. And anxiety was more likely to affect performance for girls than it was for boys. That means, according to the study authors, that girls might actually do better at math than boys if anxiety weren’t holding them back.
There are lots of possible reasons why girls might be more anxious. The study authors note that the idea that men and boys are simply better at math persists to some degree in British culture, meaning girls might be socialized to think they’re no good at it. They point out that this view is changing. However, Sian Beilock, psychologist and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To offers another disturbing possibility. Her research shows that when female teachers are anxious about their own math ability, students can pick up on that — and female teachers’ anxiety disproportionately affects female students. Since most primary-school teachers in the US (and the UK) are female, girls may be suffering from anxiety caused by a previous generation’s experience of stereotypes.
And while girls didn’t perform worse overall in either Devine’s or Beilock’s research, Beilock told BuzzFeed Shift that anxiety can have lasting effects. Girls who are anxious about math or who think they’re bad at it because of their gender may “disengage,” becoming less excited about pursuing math in the future. Such disengagement could contribute to the continued gender gap in math and engineering fields.
Beilock did offer some potential solutions to this problem. She said boys tend to be more likely to use alternate methods to solve math problems, like breaking the problem down into smaller parts or first eliminating multiple-choice answers that don’t make sense. These strategies also tend to be less affected by anxiety, and teaching them to girls could help them cope with worry. Boys also tend to get more practice at math concepts outside of school — in building projects, for instance. Giving girls more access to such projects could boost confidence.
Girls also benefit, Beilock said, when adults frame math skill “as a malleable ability that can change over time with effort,” rather than something some people naturally have more of than others. It may help them to hear that they have as much potential as boys do — which Devine’s study and others have shown to be true — and that being good at math is really about hard work, not gender.