Math + Women = Anxiety

How Gender Stereotypes Lead to Self-Doubt

Celcy Powers-King, a junior majoring in philosophy at Mount Mary University, said that part of her current anxiety with math stems from constantly struggling with it in the past.

“The other part of it is testing,” she said. “In class, I’ll feel fine, but when it’s test time, there’s this anxiety of ‘Do I really know what I’m doing?’ that comes into play.”

Powers-King said that while she feels like she knows the material before a test, it always seems like during a test, she forgets everything she had learned because of her anxiety.

“Maybe it’s the pressure of the time constraint that makes me focus on the time that I don’t have rather than actually going through the problems,” Powers-King said. “The anxiety creates self-doubt that leads to confusion and ultimately results in questions not being answered. It makes me feel worthless and stupid because I felt like I could do the math when I was doing the homework.”

Powers-King said that one factor that she feels contributes to math anxiety in women are the stereotypes perpetuated by society that sends the message that women aren’t as good at math or other STEM-related subjects.

“When you look at the fields that are STEM-related, they’re always male-dominated careers because men always assumed that women are inferior intellectually,” she said. “While woman are starting to prove that this is not the case, it’s still present.”

Math Anxiety in Women

Dr. Justin Hustoft, a physics professor at Mount Mary, said that while everyone has a little anxiety in their earliest exposure to math, there is a trend on the elementary school level for boys to subconsciously be more encouraged to believe they are superior in math than girls.

“It’s mostly in women because we are telling women in so many different ways that they’re not good at math, they don’t have to be good at math, and it doesn’t affect their ability, but it does,” he said. “Everybody has to know some math.”

Hustoft said that math is not merely computation and that we teach children that calculating quickly in their heads makes them better at math.

“Math takes a lot of deep, slow thinking,” he said. “People think ‘fast computation means I’m good at math’ when it’s not anything of the sorts. It’s the same as any other creative field.”

Dr. Laurel End, a psychology professor and department chair, initiated research on math anxiety in female students with fellow psychology professor, Dr. Karen Friedland, 12 years ago at Mount Mary. This research began after they noticed that many of the strong female students in their statistics course would inform them that they “couldn’t do math.”

“We started getting interested in why women might say that and what factors contribute to why otherwise very intelligent people who work hard would think they couldn’t master math,” End said.

While End and Friedlen modified the various factors such as the sex of the instructor and final course grade that could contribute to math anxiety in female students, one aspect that they focused on was stereotype threat.

“Stereotype threat refers to situations where people become aware of the stereotypes about a group that they are a member of, and that creates anxiety for them,” End said. “Then that actually does interfere with performance.”

End said that when we are anxious, it reduces cognitive processing power.

“One of the things that stereotype threat does because of the anxiety it produces, it saps what’s called executive control,” End said. “When this happens, we don’t have as much cognitive energy to devote to the math problems, so we don’t do as well. This reinforces that stereotype in our mind.”

End said that historically, women have been told that they are not as good at math as males. This deters women from getting into STEM-based jobs and earning higher salaries.

“This stereotype gets perpetuated and it seems to really take hold in middle school,” End said. “There’s a lot going on in middle school in terms of identity and fitting in, so when (women) are aware of the stereotype that females are not as good at math as males, it makes us anxious because it makes women feel like we have something to prove.”

End said that data shows that there’s not a significant difference between the average male and female scores in math courses. Yet, math anxiety in women is more widely prevalent than in men.

“We’ve looked at female students at co-ed universities and they do tend to have less anxiety at the beginning of a math-based courses than (Mount Mary) students do, but they don’t show a significant reduction in anxiety,” she said. “But often our students show a significant reduction in anxiety.”

In each statistics class she instructs, End gives her students a math assessment called the math anxiety scale. The assessment contains 20 questions on each side: one side contains questions for the students to evaluate how they feel about math within an academic setting. The other side has questions about the application of math in an informal context.

“Our students are more anxious about using math in class evaluations, but not so much when using math in day-to-day settings,” End said. “I think it has a lot to do with our students having this high need for achievement and worrying that they’re not going to do well in math-related areas.”

End said that while students at Mount Mary tend to become less anxious about math as their course progresses and they start earning good grades in the class, they still don’t think they can do math.

“When I talk to them about about statistics they say ‘Wow, I didn’t realize I can learn that, but I still don’t feel like I know the material,’” End said. “So now I’m starting to think there’s some sort of imposter syndrome going on … when women are good at math, they discount it as luck or think, ‘Well, that was just an easy class.’”

Countering Societal Messages

When encountering female students who have reservations about math, Hustoft reminds his students about their potential.

“I tell them that everybody can learn how to do math, and what you’ve been taught and your exposure to what math is up to this point is not an accurate reflection of what the field is,” he said.

Hustoft said that at times, female students are mathematically inclined, but have been discouraged from exploring it.

“A lot of people with raw mathematical talent don’t think they have it because they confuse mathematics with computation,” he said.

Hustoft said that it’s important to realize that intelligence is not a fixed quantity and that it’s something that grows with you.

“For instance, muscle mass … You can increase your muscle mass by exercising,” he said. “But just sitting down and just saying ‘(The weight) is too heavy to lift, therefore I’m not a weight lifter’ won’t help you build muscle mass. It’s the same with math. If you won’t try to tackle the math problem, then you’re not going to get better at it.”

When attempting to develop techniques to help students get better at math, Hustoft said it can be challenging when everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.

“I have to identify where they have been misled in math,” Hustoft said. “Then I try to encourage them to think of math in a totally different way. It’s not simply numbers; numbers are not even the most important part of math. And people see math everywhere once you start to point it out to them.”

End said that when she teaches a statistics class, she shares her own struggles with math to relate to her students.

“I was not strong in math in my undergrad stats class,” she said. “I always say that I got a mercy ‘C’ in that class, probably because my professor felt bad for me … my exams were always terrible.”

End said that it took taking a bunch of classes before she felt that she understood the material and it became fun to do.

“Have a mindset to know that just because you’re not confident in math now, doesn’t mean that you can’t be,” she said.

End said that with the multiple-choice section of her exams, students can circle the one that they think is correct and write a “1” next to their second choice. This way, students get two points for a correct answer if it’s circled, and one point for a correct answer if it has a “1” next to it.

“Psychologically, this provides lower stakes,” she said. “I also assign homework after every chapter. Giving students other ways of earning points and improving their grade besides assessments should also reduce the anxiety a little bit.”

End said that making connections to real-life applications tends to motivate students when approaching math.

“Math is not just about doing calculation,” she said. “If you don’t understand how to interpret the information you’re getting, and you don’t see why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re missing out.”

Powers-King said that the best way that an instructor can help with math anxiety is learning how to teach by accommodating different learning styles.

“If you can’t transfer the math to accommodate different modes of thinking, it’s not going to reach everybody,” she said. “Try to come up with more creative ways to apply math problems.Taking the math off the board and applying it in different ways helps people who learn differently.”

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