Why Confidence Matters In Math

There is currently a large gap between the numbers of men and women pursuing math and science careers. While the chasm is narrowing, today women make up
less than 10% of fmath professors at the top 100 universities in the US.

So why are women, who are just as good at math as men, opting out of the subject? A study published in June 2015 found that men believe that they are much better at math than they are, while women are more accurate about estimating their mathematical abilities. There is nothing wrong with precision, of course, but this research has found that precision does not launch careers, self-belief does.

How did US researchers work this out? They conducted two experiments as part of their study. They enrolled two groups: one consisting of 122 undergraduate students and the other of 184 participants. Both groups completed a math test and had to guess their results. One of the groups was informed about their results and asked to take another test to predict their scores. The second group did not receive their marks but were asked about their interest in pursuing math-based careers.

In both experiments, men overestimated their results, although those who received feedback were more accurate about their achievements the second time around. One of the more interesting conclusions came from the second experiment, where the participants did not know their results. As per previous findings, the men in that group believed they were better at math, but because of this, they were more likely to devote themselves to math careers and courses than their female counterparts.

“Despite assumptions that realism and objectivity are always best in evaluating the self and making decisions, positive illusions about math abilities may be beneficial to women pursuing math courses and careers,” an author of the study said. “Such positive illusions could function to protect women’s self-esteem despite lower-than-desired performance, leading women to continue to pursue courses in science, technology, engineering and maths fields and ultimately improve their skills.”

This is not the first study that has favored men in the math field. In 2014, researchers found that both men and women underestimated women’s abilities in the subject and found that men were more than twice as likely to be hired to perform a simple math job than women were.

These assumptions need to change for more women to embrace math careers. Researchers suggest applauding a woman’s knack for math through childhood and continuing to celebrate her arithmetic achievements throughout her life. The stereotypes need to stop with this generation as there is plenty of proof showing girls are just as good as boys when it comes to number crunching.


Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one.  She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.