Math anxiety — the phenomenon of having such negative emotions about math that one avoids the subject — affects females at higher rates than males, but only in developed nations, according to a new study.
The researchers from the University of Missouri, the University of California-Irvine and the University of Glasgow in Scotland found that in less developed countries all students — both male and female — have high levels of math anxiety.
They studied data from over 700,000 15-year-olds across the world who participated in the Program for International Student Assessment to glean results, which were published in the journal PLOS One. What they found is somewhat puzzling.
While “the general belief in the field is that as society became more gender equal, with more women in politics … and [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields and so forth, this would provide more role models, and therefore the gender differences in math anxiety and math performance would disappear,” David Geary, Curators Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri, told The Huffington Post in an interview. “We found the opposite.”
Overall, students in more developed nations — where performance is higher — have less math anxiety than students in less developed nations, the study found. As math performance increases, overall levels of anxiety tends to decrease. But there’s a catch.
“The math anxiety of girls didn’t decrease as rapidly as the math anxiety of boys. As a result, when you looked at economically developed countries with good educational systems, you begin to see a gap where girls have more math anxiety than boys. In less developed countries, everyone has high math anxiety,” Greary said. Even when researchers control for performance, girls “still have more math anxiety than they should.”
So why is this happening?
One possibility is that parents tend to instill a sense that math is more important for boys than it is for girls. Using a PISA survey that asked students about their parents’ attitudes toward math and one that asked parents about the subject, researchers found that parents of girls found math less significant.
“Whether that directly contributes to math anxiety gap or is a reflection of that we don’t know,” Greary said. “But it really is the wrong message for girls and women, particularly in a modern economy where everyone needs reasonably good math skills.”
Researchers also found that a country’s proportion of women working in STEM fields had no bearing on the levels of math anxiety felt by teen girls. Whether or not a student attended a single-sex school also did not have a significant impact.
Greary is calling on parents and teachers to focus more on the usefulness of math in everyday life.
“We don’t really know why the math anxiety doesn’t fully disappear as much in girls as in boys,” he said. But either way, leaders need to “focus on the long-term usefulness of math and the greater options it’s going to give you in life. Even if you want to go into business and move into management, you have to have reasonably good math skills.”