Email to a friend
Girls' confidence in math
dampened by parents' gender stereotypes
McElroy, News Bureau
photo to enlarge
by Clark Brooks
left, a professor of human and community development,
and graduate student Ruchi Bhanot have found that
the self-confidence of middle-school girls suffers
when their parents believe the gender stereotypes
that hold that math is a male domain.
— A survey of middle school girls reveals that their self-confidence
in math suffers when their parents believe the gender stereotype that
holds that math is a male domain and when the parents give unsolicited
help with homework.
Researchers Ruchi Bhanot and Jasna Jovanovic from the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign report the findings in the May issue of
the journal Sex Roles: A Journal of Research.
“There’s still a gender gap in math and science,”
said Jovanovic, a professor in the department of human
and community development. “It’s not a gap about performance
or achievement. It’s about attitudes. Girls are not as confident
about math and science.”
According to the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 71
percent of eighth-grade boys and 60 percent of eighth-grade girls reported
confidence in their math ability. The gender gap in confidence persists
in high school.
Jovanovic studies the factors that play a part in that gap. “National
achievement tests and performance in class show that girls have the
same math ability as boys,” said Jovanovic, who also is a professor
of women’s studies. “Yet,
girls continue to underestimate their ability. I’m interested
in what contributes to their lack of confidence.”
Bhanot and Jovanovic decided to study whether parents influence their
children’s confidence in math ability. “Previous work shows
that children’s confidence decreases when parents give unsolicited
help on homework,” said Bhanot, who is a graduate student in the
department of human and community development.
Bhanot, who conducted this study for her master’s thesis, became
curious whether parents who endorse gender stereotypes and who give
intrusive help on homework unintentionally undermine a child’s
self-confidence in academic abilities.
“Research shows that when parents endorse the stereotype that
math is a male domain, their daughters underestimate their math ability,”
Somehow, parents communicate gender stereotypes to their children. Jovanovic
and Bhanot hypothesized that parents inadvertently impose stereotypes
when they give unsolicited help with their child’s homework.
Thirty-eight middle-school boys and girls received checklists to complete
after they finished their homework in math and English. The checklists
asked the children if their parents had given unsolicited help, if their
parents had checked their homework without being asked and if their
parents had reminded them to do their homework.
Children and parents also answered questionnaires. Children assessed
their math and English abilities. Parents answered questions about their
gender stereotypes for abilities related to math and English and their
perceptions about their child’s ability in those subjects.
Bhanot and Jovanovic found that while boys received more intrusive support
than girls, girls were more sensitive to such intrusions. “We
found that girls have less self-confidence in their math ability when
their parents give intrusive support,” Bhanot said. “This
was not true for intrusions during English homework and not true for
“The moral of our paper is about girls’ sensitivity,”
Jovanovic said. “Girls may be thinking ‘If mom/dad helps
me, that means I can’t do it.’ ”
Bhanot and Jovanovic emphasize that their results should not be interpreted
as implying that helping with homework is detrimental to children. “We’re
not saying, ‘Parents, stop helping your kids,’ ” Jovanovic
said. “We know that all children benefit from having parents involved
– just be more sensitive to how help is perceived.”
Studies by Eva Pomerantz, a psychology professor at Illinois, as well
as some other researchers who study the issue of homework indicate that
there are other ways to help, Jovanovic said.
“Children who are encouraged to figure out problems on their own
are likely to be more engaged in the task, and ultimately perform better,"
said Pomerantz, referring to a study she and colleagues published in
the journal Child Development in spring 2004.
“Parents should stop themselves from jumping in,” Bhanot
said. “Without intrusive support, girls can try the homework on
their own. That gives them ownership, which increases confidence.”
Bhanot and Jovanovic list a few limitations of their study. “Our
sample consisted of high-achieving students,” Jovanovic said.
“The girls were ‘A’ students, and the boys were ‘B+’
to ‘A-’ students.” Therefore, the results cannot be
generalized to all students.
Jovanovic also warns that the data are not longitudinal. “We don’t
know whether the parents get more involved because their daughters lack
confidence, or whether parents’ involvement causes girls to lack
confidence. This process may have evolved way before we got into the
Bhanot and Jovanovic conclude their paper by writing that to boost girls’
confidence in math and science it must be understood how girls perceive
messages from parents and other adults about their abilities. “We
need to help girls learn to interpret these messages to their advantage,”
Bhanot and Jovanovic wrote.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the research. Bhanot’s
work also was supported by a grant from the Graduate College at Illinois.