— Women told that female under-achievement in mathematics is due to genetic factors perform much worse on maths tests than those told that social factors are responsible.
These new findings could have serious implications not only for the way the subject is taught in schools, but for public discussions about genetic influences on behaviour. It may also inform debates about why women are under-represented in university mathematics and science departments.
The question of whether there might be gender differences in mathematical ability remains contentious. Earlier this year, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, Massachusetts, US, resigned in response to an outcry over his speculation on the topic. He said one reason women are under-represented in science and engineering jobs could be because of a different availability of aptitude at the high end.
As our research demonstrates, just hearing about that sort of idea is enough to negatively affect womens performance, and reproduce the stereotype that is out there, says Steven Heine at the University of British Columbia, Canada, who led the new study.
Whether true or not, the stereotype of innate sex differences does exist in mathematics departments, and it can have a serious impact, agrees Peter Hall at the Mathematical Sciences Institute at the Australian National University in Canberra, and president of the Australian Mathematical Society.
It can be very forbidding for a young woman to come up against that generalisation and thats one of the environmental factors that has kept women out of not just maths but science, he says.
Nature or nurture?
Heine and colleague Ilan Dar-Nimrod told 220 women that there are definite sex differences in maths performance. One group was then told that genetic factors were the cause. Another group was told that experiences with studying maths were responsible that women do worse than men because of the way their teachers interacted with them in elementary school, for instance.
The impact on subsequent mathematics tests was pronounced, with the "genes" group getting about half as many correct answers as the experiential group.
Experiential accounts make people think they can overcome those experiences, says Heine. Whereas the 'genes' group think of genes as the core of themselves, so ask: how can I overcome this, when this is part of who I am?
The media, and sometimes scientists, are often guilty of over-simplifying the influence of genes on behaviour, he says, which can compound this deterministic view. We have to ask: are there ways of communicating genetic accounts of behaviour that dont yield these sorts of results and thats something we want to pursue, he says.
When it comes to female under-representation in university maths departments, one reason could be sex differences not in ability but interest, Hall suggests. In general, women tend to be more interested in applied rather than pure maths, and as maths departments increase the number of applied posts, the number of women being appointed is also rising, he notes.
But look for reasons for those differences in interest, and you are back at the nature versus nurture debate. Partly, it has to do with what society says, even very subtly, about what women should or should not be involved in, Hall says.
Journal reference: Science (vol 314, p 435)