Even though female students do better than males in elementary school math tests, by the time both sexes join the workforce, men outnumber women by a sizable margin in science, technology, engineering and mathematics related jobs. Hence, societies in countries around the world identify math and science more with men than women. However, it seems that one reason men get into careers such as science and engineering more than women is simply because men are more confident of their skills in those subjects than women are. It appears to be a self-perpetuating cycle.
Shane Bench of Washington State University in the US decided to look into how biases and previous experiences about mathematical abilities play a role in whether people decide to forge a career in a math-related field.
In the study, researchers conducted two experiments. In the first one, participants had to do a math test and then estimate how well they thought they performed on it. They were then given feedback on their test scores. They then had to do another test and again guess how well they scored.
A second group of participants also took an initial test and then had to guess their results, but in the second experiment they were not given any feedback on their results. They were instead asked about their inclination to get into careers that needed math-related skills.
Results from both the studies showed that male participants thought they had solved more problems than they actually had. Women had a more accurate idea on how well they did on the test. But the results of the second study showed that men intended to go into math-related careers based on their inflated estimate of their skills. However, women who had positive prior experiences with math also overestimated their skills.
The finding that some women also overestimate their abilities leads Bench to a counterintuitive conclusion. “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. 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 math fields and ultimately improve their skills,” said Bench.
The study participants were undergraduate students in the USA, so the results need to be validated in other countries as well. The research also didn’t examine why or how men come to overestimate their math abilities. Understanding that may help break the cycle and bring more women in science jobs.
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The study was published in the journal Sex Roles