Research has found that social equality could be detrimental to girls’ maths performance. This is because social equality promotes comparison between genders, which then encourages us to adopt gender stereotypes like ‘girls are bad at maths’. So beware of the effects of gender stereotypes if you live in an extremely egalitarian society. In fact, you can even counter the effects of negative stereotypes.
A statistical analysis has revealed that in societies with greater social equality, boys tend to outperform girls on maths. This certainly goes against intuition, which suggests that social equality should instead reduce this performance gap in maths because girls and boys are offered similar opportunities to excel and succeed. This is definitely true, but unfortunately is only one side of the story.
How do you know whether you’re doing well in a task? More often than not, we look around to check how well people around us are doing and make a judgement of ourselves based on our relative performance. This is also known as social comparison, and psychological research has shown that social comparison is crucial in helping us define how competent we are and most importantly, our self-concepts (i.e., who we are).
So how is everything related? It seems that in societies with greater social equality, interaction between males and females is more common and natural. As a result, there are more opportunities for boys and girls to compare themselves with the opposite sex. However, in societies with social inequality, it is uncommon for boys and girls to intermingle naturally due to rigid rules or practices that guide inter-gender social relationships, and this essentially means few opportunities to compare with the opposite sex.
Therefore, in societies with social equality, boys and girls are more likely to compare their maths performance with each other. This unknowingly forces boys and girls to take up stereotypes that are relevant to their own gender as they try to form coherent self-concepts of who they are (‘I am a girl’ or ‘I am a boy’ etc.). This suggests that social equality causes us to adopt gender stereotypes (negative or positive) and girls are likely to do badly in maths if they adopt the pervasive gender-maths stereotype (‘girls are bad at maths’).
It surely sounds ironic—social equality is not reducing the gap between males and females, but actually widening the gender gap, at least in terms of maths performance. If everything in this study is true, there could be more consequences than merely maths performance.
What do you think of this argument? Do you think there’s any logic behind it?
Source: Hamamura, T. (2011). Power distance predicts gender differences in math performance across societies. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(5), 545–548. doi:10.1177/1948550611429191
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