Distributed September 12, 2000
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Kristen Cole

Women perform better in math when tested without men, study says

A study of 164 Brown University undergraduates in 1998 and 1999 found women performed as well as men when they took math tests with other women, but did not perform as well when tested with men.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Women perform as much as 12 percent better on math problems when tested in a setting without men, according to a study of Brown University undergraduates led by a graduate student of psychology.

Specifically, women tested in single-sex groups scored a 70-percent accuracy rate on math exams; women tested in groups in which they were outnumbered by men scored a 58-percent accuracy rate, said lead author Michael Inzlicht, whose study appeared in the September issue of the American Psychological Society’s journal, Psychological Science.

Being outnumbered may cause females to suffer from “stereotype threat,” a situational phenomenon that occurs when targets of a stereotype – in this case the idea that women do not perform as well as men in math – are reminded of that stereotype, according to Inzlicht.

“The presence of men can interfere with women’s problem-solving performance because anxiety can distract someone from taking an exam,” said Inzlicht, whose co-author is Talia Ben-Zeev, assistant professor of psychology at Williams College.

The study included 127 female and 37 male undergraduates, tested in groups of three on standardized math and verbal exams. The gender balance of those three-person groups varied from three women to mixed groups to three men. Participants completed either math or verbal multiple-choice questions from the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) test guide, and were informed beforehand that their performance would be reported to the other group members.

On math exams, women’s accuracy decreased as the number of men in the group increased. Even when women were in the majority in the three-person group, they still underperformed in comparison to women in all-female settings – achieving only a 64-percent accuracy rate compared to the 70-percent accuracy rate.

Different gender ratios never resulted in changes in male test performance; men consistently registered about 67-percent accuracy on math exams.

However, simply being in a classroom with men did not effect women’s overall intellectual performance, Inzlicht said. The performance differences were limited to situations in which women were tested on math, a subject that is traditionally stereotyped. Researchers did not find any gender difference in performance on verbal exams.

The research is not intended to determine whether or not females would benefit from single-sex education, but the data suggest that females may benefit from single-sex math classes, said Inzlicht. The findings also point out the danger of stereotypes, he said. The study results are limited because the research looked only at small groups in a very controlled setting.