Teachers Think White Females Lag Behind in Math, University of Texas at Austin Study Finds

April 4, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas — High school math teachers tend to rate white female students’ math abilities lower than those of their white male peers, even when their grades and test scores are comparable, according to a University of Texas at Austin study.

Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb and sociology doctoral student Melissa Humphries conducted the study using nationally representative data from the Education Longitudinal Study (ELS) of 2002. The ELS followed a cohort of about 15,000 students from their sophomore year in high school through their post-secondary education and into the work force.

“If the math bias against females is present in elementary school, which past research shows it is, and continues through high school and then college, then it’s much less likely that you will find women pursuing math-related high-status occupations in science and technology,” said Riegle-Crumb, an assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and a faculty research associate at the Population Research Center in the College of Liberal Arts. “If you perceive the message ‘You’re just not quite as good at math as the boys are’ often enough, you may start to believe it.” 

Teachers’ perceptions of students’ math abilities was one portion of the data gathered by the ELS. The teachers were asked to rate students on whether the math class in which the students were enrolled fit their abilities, was too easy for them or was too difficult for them.

“The bias teachers revealed against white female students may very well be something they are not consciously aware of, and it’s usually subtle,” said Riegle-Crumb, “but it’s definitely present, per our research findings.”

Previous research documented that racial bias persists and is pervasive. But this study is the first to reveal, at the high school level, that white female students are deemed less capable in math when measured against white males whose academic performance is comparable. Riegle-Crumb said it’s particularly disturbing that these teacher perceptions manifest at a time when most students are making decisions about post-secondary education and careers.

According to Riegle-Crumb, the majority of teachers rated both male and female minorities’ math abilities lower when their test scores and grades were indeed low, which does not constitute “bias” because there is reasonable data to support that evaluation. This does not suggest that minorities are free from substantial negative stereotyping, which can affect their academic and career aspirations and achievement.

“It’s important to keep in mind that even though the math bias against females in any one classroom may be small, taken over a lifetime and with thousands of accumulated experiences, it can influence one’s identity as well as the perceptions of others,” said Riegle-Crumb.

The study findings will be published in the April 2012 issue of the journal Gender & Society.

For more information, contact: Kay Randall, College of Education, 512 471 6033.

7 Comments to "Teachers Think White Females Lag Behind in Math, University of Texas at Austin Study Finds"

1.  Alex O'Neal said on April 4, 2012

As a female who encountered quite a bit of resistance to my interest in science and math in youth, I'm glad someone is doing this research. But I'm curious - was the male/female/minority status of the teachers tracked? Are there differences between the level of bias expressed by male or female, white or minority teachers? This kind of information could help in figuring out solutions to such problems, and where to target efforts.

2.  Anon said on April 9, 2012

Perhaps it's not a bias, but rather that the teachers see more than just the grades and test scores and make their judgments based on more complete information? For example, suppose the boys were better at math, but had difficulty with a classroom emphasizing quiet, neatness, and inactivity. Thus they score lower than their true ability because of a discriminatory environment.

As a parent of boys I find it hard to believe this is not a partial explanation. I resent the jump to bias as a conclusion.

3.  Rachelle said on April 9, 2012

Teachers probably think females lag behind in math because they do.

4.  dglenn said on April 11, 2012

Rachelle, the antecedent of your pronoun is ambiguous. Do you mean 'Teachers probably think females lag behind in math because the teachers themselves lag in math'? If so, you may be onto something. In my past as a math tutor and as a classroom math teacher, most of my effort went into undoing damage done by previous teachers, who had made math mysterious, difficult, and arbitrary-seeming because they themselves didn't really understand it. (Note that I have no idea what the gender mix of the elementary- and middle-school teachers was that my students had been exposed to.)

In my experience (broad enough to be interesting, not broad enough to be statistically conclusive), girls -- and women of course -- who are _interested_ in math are able to do well in math. The likelihood that many become uninterested in it because social gender expectations hammer the message that they shouldn't be interested or shouldn't be able, seems awfully large, all the more so with these new data.

5.  Jane Maze said on April 11, 2012

Rachelle, if you actually read the article you are commenting on you will see that it is girls who DO NOT lag behind in math, but perform equally to boys, whom the teachers are rating lower than the boys.

6.  Hope said on April 12, 2012

Seconding Anon @2. What if the teacher can see that the girls work harder for their grades? What if they are studying longer and doing more homework in order to acquire the skills whereas the boys were dashing through the homework and still acing the tests in order to get the same grades?

I'd like to know why the study assumes that the grades are an accurate representation of math ability when the experienced person standing in a classroom day after day is not.

7.  Richard Harper said on April 14, 2012

Why is there such perceptual bias on the part of the teachers? The Trivers-Willard hypothesis predicts that when there are many cues of abundant resources adults will tend to invest more heavily in male children. Perhaps the perceptual bias is a way of disposing the adults toward behaviors as indicated by the Trivers-Willard idea in a way that in modern environments is a mistake/bias.. that is maladaptive? (BTW: The wiki on the T-W gets the basics, but is woefully inadequate for all the research on it.)