Friday, April 15, 2005

Perception becomes reality

According to a study released by the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), our daughters need a reality check when it comes to their abilities. The data showed that girls in advanced mathematics classes said they thought they were worse at math than boys who were in basic math classes. The study was presented at the biennial conference of the Society for Research in Child Development in Atlanta, Georgia.

"Boys believed they were better than their grades actually are, while girls believed they were worse than their grades actually are," study author Dr. Pamela Davis-Kean told Reuters Health.

Furthermore, despite girls' report cards, parents tended to believe that girls have to work harder at math than do sons.

These early influences may discourage many capable girls from entering careers in math and science, Davis-Kean said.
Starting early in school, the researchers found that girls overall received better grades than boys in school, and teachers generally said girls were stronger students than boys. However, even girls receiving excellent grades in advanced or honors math classes said they were worse at math than boys in basic math classes, receiving lower grades.

Girls also tended to say they worked harder at math than at English, but time diaries showed that girls logged more time working on language arts than on math.

Furthermore, parents of girls tended to say math was harder for their daughters than did parents of sons, and parents of daughters also believed their children had to work harder at math to do well.

It reminds me of another study which showed that showed gender differences in perceived weight.

From that article:
Even health care professionals, such as medical doctors, tend to rate more girls than boys as obese, irrespective of their relative weight. Female students in a secondary school reported being encouraged to lose weight more often than were the male students.

Perhaps this University of Michigan study is observing the same feedback phenomenon as the obesity study, though it does not seem to address the issue: that girls meeting high standards receive less positive feedback than boys meeting lower standards, and girls failing to achieve a much higher standard than the boys' receive more negative feedback for that failure, both from parents and authorities.

In other words, our perception becomes their reality.

Tackling this perception problem is tough. A lot of mothers were discouraged from pursuing math and science in school, as I was, and so are not prepared to provide the hands-on help and targeted praise that girls need to build up their self-esteem in math. I think we tend to echo their insecurity, remembering our own failures and extrapolating their abilities based on our own. So we may unconsciously reinforce their self-doubt rather than pointing out their successes.

Teachers are part of the problem, too. The best and brightest girls tend to be overlooked in the classroom while the attention goes to less achieving boys. Both my daughters talk of feeling invisible in their math classes -- my son, with the same abilities, does not. He does, however, receive great praise in English class for his ability to write, while that talent has been taken for granted in my daughters.

I don't know what all the answers are, but the questions raised by this study are a good place to start.

(cross-posted at I See Invisible People)

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