How to Help Girls Do Better at Math: Have Them Pretend to Be Someone Else

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Women who feel in danger of being stereotyped do worse on tests. A new study offers a simple way to fix the problem.

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

You’ve no doubt heard about stereotype threat and its negative effects on achievement. In a nutshell, if you think your performance will be used by others to assess the skills of a whole class of people or that others’ prejudices will be applied to you, you’re unlikely to perform at your best. So, for example, women who are worried about confirming the bias that girls are bad at math perform worse on math tests than female test takers who don’t have the shadow of discrimination hanging over them.

So what can be done to lift that shadow and help girls reach their full potential without worrying about other people’s misconceptions?

The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog recently highlighted a study that offers a startling simple suggestion: don’t put your own name on the top of the test paper. The blog reports:

A new study shows a simple way to alleviate the self-reputational aspect of stereotype threat. Shen Zhang and her team tested 110 women and 72 men (all were undergrads) on 30 multiple-choice maths questions. To ramp up the stereotype threat, the participants were told that men usually outperform women on maths performance. Crucially, some of the participants completed the test after writing their own name at the top of the test paper, whereas the others completed the test under one of four aliases (Jacob Tyler, Scott Lyons, Jessica Peterson, or Kaitlyn Woods). For the latter group, the alias was pre-printed on the first test page, and the participants wrote it on the top of the remainder.

 

Overall, men outperformed women on the maths task. But women who took the test under someone else’s name, be it male or female, performed better than women who performed under their own name, and they did just as well as the men. The effect was stronger for women who cared more about maths.

 

By separating their performance from their own identity, it seems the women performing under an alias no longer felt pressure to avoid being seen as an example of the harmful gender stereotype.

The researchers feel this insight could be applied in real life by designing tests where women are assessed by people who are kept in the dark about their identity. For more details, check out the complete post.

How could this research be put to use in the real world?

jstillman Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.