Gender stereotypes concerning mathematical abilities: threat or challenge?

Anna Rędzio


Stereotypes concerning women's mathematical abilities are widespread and can become an obstacle for some women to succeed in this domain, thus, they can be one of the possible reasons for the gap between men and women in mathematics. There is significant empirical evidence confirming that women in the situation of stereotype threat (i.e. when they are afraid of confirming that they are less gifted in mathematics than men are) perform worse than their colleagues who are not threatened in this way. There is also empirical evidence that another psychological phenomenon, intellectual helplessness in mathematics, is a predictor of school achievement in mathematics as well as general intellectual capabilities are. An experimental study with women active in STEM (graduates at university of engineering) as participants was conducted to test the relationships between intellectual helplessness experienced in mathematics classes and vulnerability to stereotype threat. All participants completed Intellectual Helplessness Inventory and afterwards they all received the same tasks to perform. One group was informed those tasks were diagnostic of mathematical abilities (experimental condition, stereotype threat induced) and the other group received the information that those tasks were testing their perceptiveness (control condition, no threat induced). The results indicated that there was an interesting correlation: Women who exhibited lack of intellectual helplessness in mathematics reacted paradoxically to stereotype threat (improved instead of impairing their performance). However, those who reported higher intellectual helplessness in mathematics, reacted typically to stereotype threat, i.e. performed worse than the control group. These results suggest that intellectual helplessness can be a factor impacting vulnerability or immunity to stereotype threat, but further research confirming this dependency is necessary.


stereotypes, gender stereotypes, intellectual helplessness in math, stereotype threat, women in STEM


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