Leveling out the gender gap in STEM careers has been problematic for some time now, and many researchers are analyzing just why it’s so hard to get a balance of men and women in those fields. A new study has found that perhaps math anxiety is one of the many hurdles, with women affected by the condition much more so than men.
Psychologists from the US and Scotland analyzed the math performance of more than 761,000 15-year-olds, in 68 countries and evaluated them alongside various socio-economic indicators.
The researchers found that developed countries had higher levels of math performance and lower levels of math anxiety overall. However, those countries also had a larger gender gap in math anxiety, meaning that girls in developed countries were far more likely to worry about math than boys.
Another interesting finding from the research was that countries with a larger proportion of mothers to fathers in STEM occupations, also had a larger gender gap in math anxiety. The authors did put a positive spin on this: “After all, it shows that despite a larger sex difference in mathematics anxiety in these countries, this does not preclude a relatively high proportion of mothers choosing a career in STEM subjects. Indeed, actual mathematical competence, which is relatively high overall for both sexes in most of these countries, is likely a more critical trait for STEM entry than relative mathematics anxiety,” They wrote.
A more worrying trend that has emerged from the research found that parents in more developed countries, placed more emphasis on the mathematical development of their sons, than their daughters.
The authors offered a possible explanation for this as well: “Because girls express higher levels of anxiety about mathematics, parents of girls may be more likely to devalue the importance of the domain in relation to their daughters than their sons, who show relatively less mathematics anxiety by comparison.”
Still, despite the in-depth analysis, the researchers have no clear answer on why this gender disparity is taking place.
“Policies to attract more girls and women into subjects such as computer science, physics and engineering have largely failed,” Gijsbert Stoet, reader in psychology at the University of Glasgow and a co-author of the study, said.
“Gender equality is a key humanistic value in enlightened and developed societies, but our research shows that policy makers cannot rely on it as the sole factor in getting more girls into subjects like physics and computer science. It is fair to say that nobody knows what will actually attract more girls into these subjects. Policies and programs to change the gender balance in non-organic STEM subjects have just not worked,” Stoet said.
Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one. She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.