Study: Math Anxiety Keeps Girls Out of STEM Careers

pixabay - mathWhen I took my ACT to get into college, I scored incredibly high in communications-related subjects. I did almost the opposite in math. And then when I went to college, I had a very difficult time just passing my trigonometry and physics classes — the two higher math courses required for my degree.

I would have panic attacks before my tests and then just “blank out” on how I was supposed to be doing the math problems.

Years later, I’m still not sure I could easily pass those college classes but I think I could do a lot better. I actually find math fun now!

I can’t say for sure when my anxiety over math started, or how, but it was perpetuated by math instructors who geared their classes toward students who naturally picked up math faster and quickly lost patience with those, like me, who needed a different way to learn the concepts.

I wonder if learning differences between girls and boys may be why a recent University of Missouri-Columbia study — published in PLOS ONE — found that, overall, girls are more anxious about mathematics than boys, despite¬†efforts to actively attract girls to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and career fields. These efforts have largely centered on promoting gender equality and creating female role models, both of which have not made a positive difference in changing girls’ perceptions about math.

This observation has been global. Researchers looked at student performance of 15-year-old girls from 60 countries, including the United States, taking into account socioeconomic status.

Science Daily reported that even in countries with higher gender equality, differences in math and technical scores continue between girls and boys, with boys outperforming girls. This sounds like an innate difference — though as many of my friends in college would attest, some of whom are very sought-after female engineers — any difference in learning style is not universal. What does seem universal, according to this study, is that more girls than boys are avoiding math-related careers.

The study blames what researchers call “mathematics anxiety” for this avoidance, which sounds very plausible. But what is interesting is that girls’ math anxiety was not related to their mothers’ involvement in math-related careers or to any level of gender equality promoted in their home countries. In fact, the gender differences in math anxiety and performance was greater in more developed, gender-equal countries.

That should raise some eyebrows. Let’s look at that again: In the countries where girls have the most opportunity to grab hold of a math-related career, they have a higher risk of experiencing math anxiety — which leads to lower math performance and girls more likely to choose a career other than one in STEM.

Perhaps these girls have more pressure to perform? But, the study dispels this assumption: Researchers found that parents in more developed countries actually put more pressure on their sons than their daughters to go into a math-related career.

Maybe that’s it — girls aren’t getting the same attention as boys in terms of math careers. Certainly, pervasively high rates of girls’ anxiety toward math is troubling, and I would like to see another followup study looking at reasons for this.


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