Gender differences in “maths anxiety” aren’t explained by differences in ability

In the most gender-equal countries, the gender difference for maths anxiety is worst

Women are under-represented in many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) fields so it’s no surprise that researchers are looking to explain why. An area of particular academic interest is “maths anxiety”, which is the observation that women often feel more anxious about maths than men despite not being any worse at maths.

In a new study, a team of international researchers has looked at the maths performance of 15-year-olds in 60 different countries. It’s important to look at different countries because some have better gender equality than others. For example, Germany and Norway have better gender equality throughout society and in STEM industries compared to countries like Italy and Mexico. Surprisingly, the researchers found that girls’ maths anxiety wasn’t related to the gender equality of their countries or the girls’ maths performance.

They did find that girls are more likely to experience negative emotions about maths and STEM subjects compared to boys. The more developed the country (based on economy), boys and girls both had better maths performance and less maths anxiety. But the gender difference for the anxiety was worse in those countries. In 59% of the countries, the gender difference of maths anxiety was twice as large as the gender difference of maths performance. Girls are more anxious but it isn’t related to their ability, so what gives?

According to the study, the influence of parents could play a big part. On the one hand, the study found that having parents in STEM careers didn’t make much of a difference. On the other hand, and surprisingly, it was the parents in the most developed countries that cared more about their sons’ maths development than their daughters’. One would think that the countries with better gender equality and more mothers in STEM careers would have more parents that valued their daughters’ maths development but apparently not.

So what have we learned? The observation that girls are more prone to being anxious about maths isn’t due to gender differences in ability. Surprisingly, it also isn’t improved by being in more gender-equal countries. The factors that cause some people to have negative emotions involving maths are clearly diverse and not well-understood. There won’t be one thing that we can fix to improve things.

Policies to get more women into STEM involve highlighting role models and reducing harassment. These are worthwhile and essential practices that will improve industries for everyone but it seems there are other forces at work that need to be considered. As always, it comes back to the education and upbringing of young people. Why do parents care more about their sons’ maths development than their daughters’ in countries with better gender equality? Nobody has that answer yet. That’s a study for another day.

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