Engendering confidence: how belief shapes maths career choices

Boys simply have confidence that they are good at maths; girls don’t believe they are. That confidence in their maths ability shapes the career choices made by boys and girls and leads to girls not choosing to pursue careers in physics,  maths, engineering, or computer science (PEMC).

That’s, in a nutshell, the conclusion of a recent study of US students. The study examines why women, who represent 60% of undergraduates, earn only a small minority of degrees in the PEMC subjects. The study focuses on students’ belief in their ability under challenge and finds that, even though males’ and females’ actual abilities are the same, their perceived abilities are markedly different. And girls with a higher level of belief in their ability are far more likely to choose PEMC subjects.

Now that’s hardly a big surprise after even cursory thought. Equally the conclusion is hardly a shock.

Mathematics ability beliefs appear to explain each of our PEMC-related outcomes, at each stage, from completion of advanced science courses in secondary school to earning PEMC undergraduate degrees. Girls’ chances of choosing these majors more than tripled as their ability beliefs increased from low to high, even while controlling for key background, secondary school, and postsecondary characteristics. All together, these results suggest enhancing girls’ beliefs about their mathematics ability—in particular when encountering challenging math—can have meaningful consequences for their opportunities to pursue fields aligned with their mathematical and scientific talent.

The study proposes a number of ways of tackling the issue. Interestingly, the core of what they are suggesting revolves around developing greater resilience in girls. The study authors attribute the lack of resilience to specific and generic cultural influences, for example:

Indeed, U.S. boys are more likely to grow up practicing athletic feats and imagining they have superhuman powers while girls often still practice being princesses. While each has their merits, the differentiation is troubling… which may influence how girls and boys respond to the inevitable experience of struggling with a difficult mathematics problem or exam—alternately welcoming or avoiding the risk of failure.

Another issue is that STEM subjects are often optional and that girls “are particularly likely to follow their same-gender friends” in making course choices. in the NSW context that makes a lot of sense with Maths not being compulsory.

There are no magic bullets in the study but, as always, it’s good to have more data shining a light on what’s going on. At its base, if we want more girls in PEMC or STEM subjects, and we should for reasons of quality as much as equality, then parents, teachers and society generally need to be changing the way we build resilience and confidence in girls.

The study’s own conclusion nicely sums up:

Putting our heads in the sand in response to persistent—and in some cases worsening—gender disparities in science gets us nowhere. Rather, this research implies the need for continued investment in efforts to generate and sustain creative, multi-pronged approaches to help more talented and ambitious girls see themselves as—and become—scientists.

Image Frontiers in Psychology.

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