Analyzing Gender Expectations Relating to Mathematical Ability

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A research paper about gender roles and mathematical ability.

Submitted: January 20, 2011

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Submitted: January 20, 2011

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Analyzing Gender Expectations Relating to Mathematical Ability

There exists a prevailing belief that boys are better in math and science than females. More specifically, boys are expected to do better in mathematical and scientific endeavors than girls. When we hear the term mathematician or scientist, automatically, we visualize that person as being male. This belief has become so deeply ingrained in society, through its proliferation in the media, that many do not question whether it is really true; in fact, most American’s assume that the stereotype is true. The problem with this is that because society believes it to be true, they will act as if it is true, and this could be what makes it appear true. This becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, both for the individual boy or girl and for our society as a whole. Historically, more resources (time and money) have been geared toward males, in the area of science and mathematics. This has been especially true in the classroom, where it was expected that boys will do much better than girls in math and will be more likely than girls to pursue careers in fields that require strong mathematical abilities. While the former is not true, statistics do show the latter, while decreasing, is still true in today’s society. Some theorize that boys are better at math because they have a “math gene” or because at some point in evolution, skills that determine math ability were necessary for survival of the male, and thus he evolved into the great mathematical genius (humor intended). Still others believe it is learned through socialization, where boys are given positive reinforcement for interest in math and girls are discouraged from exerting interest in a “male field”. In addition, the expectations of the educators is said to influence the students and thus, if a teacher believes the gender role stereotype, she inadvertently passes it on to her students; the result being a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. It is important to look at all of these theories when developing a picture of what actually encompasses gender differences and if there are differences, what causes them. The first theory we will look at is the social learning theory. This theory proposes that there are two components to learning behavior (doing well at math is a behavior); the first being we learn through modeling, meaning that we learn behavior we see others do, if we are paying attention to it and are motivated enough to want to do it. The second component is that we learn behavior that is reinforced. It is this second component that intrigues many who are studying the area of gender differences, particularly as it relates to differences in mathematical achievement. Presupposing that the child has already learned basic math skills, this theory would indicate that differences in praise and expectations from parents and educators affect whether a boy or girl will believe they are supposed to be good at math. Thus, this theory would hold that a boy is inundated with messages that math is something boys are good at and he is praised when he does well and chastised when he does not. Therefore he is either receiving positive reinforcement or punishment. The theory would also hold that a girl would be praised when she did well, but not necessarily chastised when she didn’t. In fact, she may be likely to hear remarks that relate her inability to something inherent in being female, instead of relating it to her efforts, as is the case with the boy. In discussing the role of socialization in creating this disparity, several researchers have indicated that praise, specifically in a math class setting, has a stronger affect on girls than boys. In their observational study of 17 math classrooms, Parsons, et al. found that differences in praise in classroom affects all girls, but not all boys and girls have lower expectancies in classrooms where they are treated qualitatively different than boys (2007). Another component related to socializations role is the expectancy/value model of achievement, which holds that the achievement of men and women is related to how they expect to do and how important it is to do well in a specific area (Helgeson, 2009). This component helps to explain the premise of the viewpoint of those who support the role of socialization in mathematical aptitude. While there is a lack of conclusive proof that this is what occurs in high school (when the disparities in mathematical ability appear between girls and boys), it one of the leading theories presented in search of an explanation of gender theories. Still another perspective is the biological theory which assumes that cognitive differences in males and females are either due to genetics, difference in brain (structure or anatomy) or hormones. MRI studies have shown differences in the brain structure of men and women, including a greater proportion of grey matter in female brains and a greater percentage of white matter and cerebrospinal fluid (Halpern et al, 2007). In addition, “sex differences have been also been documented, with greater asymmetries in the percentage of gray matter and cerebrospinal fluid in males compared to females” (Simpkins et al., 2005). Furthermore, the corpus callosum, which is the primary means of communication between the left and right hemisphere, is larger in females; thus indicating that perhaps bilateral processing is quicker and perhaps easier in females, as opposed to males. The above-mentioned disparities in brain structure hint at a causal relationship between biology and the supposed cognitive differences between males and females. However, it is important to note that anatomical difference do not necessarily indicate difference in cognition. In fact, Halpern et al. points this out in there is a lack of large-scale studies in which mathematical abilities are measured against anatomical and physiological differences (2007). Therefore, despite the fact that differences have been found in brain structure and anatomy, it is important to understand that, at this point, those findings do not indicate that they are the cause of differences in achievement, mathematical or otherwise. A third perspective is the evolutionary approach, this theory holds that there are biological differences, but they are a result of the species adapting for their survival and spread of the subjects gene pool. Thus, this school of thought would attribute differences in math aptitude to the need for their ancestors to perform some skill or task that ensured the survival and proliferation of their genes. Furthermore, this theory views sex related differences as unchangeable and thus it supports the idea that traditional roles are natural (Helgeson, 2009). Following this theory, one must assume that the skill of hunting, often done by the men in historical times, required spatial skills, while the skill of being the guardian of the children and home, usually performed by the female, did not require this skill. Therefore, as it was imperative to their social role, those males who had spatial ability survived and feed the gene pool and those who did not… perished. While this seems like a simple solution, others have pointed out that the entire theory is based upon how we ‘believe’ humans behaved 50,000 years ago. Nonetheless, it is still a theory that does allow us another perspective on what shapes human behavior. While many of the expectations relating to gender, as it relates to scientific or mathematical performance, have changed over the last forty-years, it is important to note that for the most part, they still remain a large part of our society. While it once considered ‘offensive’ for a female to work in a scientific field, today women are welcome to hone their craft, whether it be physics, biology or even engineering, alongside men. Changes in the law and societies level of acceptance of discrimination have improved for the better; thus, making a path for women to excel in areas that were traditionally male dominated. However, despite these societal differences, the disparity still exists and the gender biased expectations still exist. American society is at a point where we no longer blatantly perpetuating these stereotypes; instead of blatantly telling Suzy that she can’t be a scientist or an engineer because math is too hard for girls, we insinuate this is a much subtler manner by allowing the hidden stereotype to show through our actions. For example, as previous studies have shown, praise and criticism (or the lack of it) plays a big part in the socialization of behavior; so the teacher who chastises Johnny more critically then Suzy for the same mathematical error is perpetuating the gender expectation, by expecting less of Suzy. In addition, the media images of scientists and engineers (both heavily mathematical fields) still show a heavy bias towards the professional being male. More of then not, when you see an image of a woman in the scientific field, it is regarding something targeted at women. For example, ads concerning feminine hygiene and birth control usually show a female physician (usually an actor). However, when you see ads concerning heart disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, the physician or scientist discussion the effects or selling the prescription medicine is usually male; this sends a message that the more serious fields are better handled by the males. Perhaps it is ‘too complicated’ for the girls. Thus, a young girl at home who is thinking about becoming a physicists or even an astronaut is inundated with subliminal messages daily showing her that those fields are reserved for her male counterparts. Meanwhile, the young boy who watches the same commercials receives reinforcement that he can be the engineer or physician who discovers the next medical breakthrough. Furthermore, due to the rigidity of previously held traditional gender roles, the percentage of females in these predominantly male fields, while increasing, is still not significant; this makes it more difficult for women to find role models in their chosen scientific field. A perfect example of what occurs when women have positive mentors in the scientific fields is exemplified by the daughters and granddaughters of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the housewife who organized the historic 1848 Seneca Falls convention, which demanded the rights of women to vote. In a New York Times article, the matrilineal line of descent and their accomplishments are exhibited as follows: “Stanton's daughter, Harriot Blatch, became the chief strategist of the suffrage movement in New York. Harriot Blatch's daughter, Nora Barney, was one of the first women to be civil engineers. Mrs. Barney's daughter, Rhoda Jenkins, 77, became an architect. Her daughter, Coline Jenkins-Sahlin, 46, is an elected official in Greenwich, Conn., and last year helped move a long-forgotten statue of Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott to the United States Capitol Rotunda. Ms. Jenkins-Sahlin's daughter, Elizabeth, 13, has contributed a chapter about six generations of Stantons in \"33 Things Every Girl Should Know,\" a book for young women published this year by Crown “(Bumiller, 1998). In reviewing their accomplishments, it allows us to see effect of one woman breaking the barrier and in this case, opening a gate for others to follow through. While women are entering fields such as engineering, mathematics and architecture in greater numbers than in previous decades, the gender role expectation still holds. Considering society has moved forward by leaps and bounds in other gender role stereotypes, it is difficult to understand how this one has lagged behind. While women obtain 55% of the bachelor’s degrees in the United States, they are statistically underrepresented in fields of computer science, physics and the remaining hard sciences (Kiefer & Shih, 2006). In conclusion, If it is found that the differences in math are due to socialization, then we have in fact created our own self-fulfilling prophesy, as a nation. Much like the female student who has lower expectations, because she assumes math is not a field for females, our society assumes that 50% of its citizens are not capable of performing jobs that would benefit us in this global economy. It is important to remember that respective position in a global economy depends on ingenuity and invention in the fields of science, technology and engineering; with 50% more scientists, physicists and the like, our nation could once again find itself in a powerful position.

References Bumiller, E. (1998, June 30). Six generations of strong women: History leaves mark on Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s line. New York Times, pp. B1,B6. Halpern, D., Benbow, C., Geary, D., Gur, R., Hyde, J., & Gernsbacher, M. (2007). The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics. Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Wiley-Blackwell), 8(1), 1-51. doi:10.1111/j.1529-1006.2007.00032.x. Helgeson, V.S. (2009). Psychology of Gender. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education. Kiefer, A., & Shih, M. (2006). Gender differences in persistence and attribution in stereotype relevant contexts. Sex Roles, 54, 859-868. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9051x Parsons, J.E., Kaczala, C.M., & Meece, J.L. (1982). Socialization of achievement attitudes and beliefs: Classroom influences. Child Development, 53, 322-339. Simpkins, S. D., Davis-Kean, P. E., & Eccles, J. S. (2005). Parents' Socializing Behavior and Children's Participation in Math, Science, and Computer Out-of-School Activities. Applied Developmental Science, 9(1), 14-30. doi:10.1207/s1532480xads0901_3


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