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Kids develop math stereotypes in second grade, UW study finds

Students in a second grade class tackle math problems. A new UW study shows people form their math stereotypes at this age.
AP Photo
Students in a second grade class tackle math problems. A new UW study shows people form their math stereotypes at this age.

Girls start to think math is a boys’ subject when they’re just 7 or 8 years old. That’s what University of Washington psychologists found when they studied children’s stereotypes. They say those beliefs could play a major role in the choices kids make as they get older.

When people pick which careers they’ll pursue, they might not realize they actually started making that choice way back in second grade. UW researchers say that’s when kids start to become aware of the stereotype that math is the domain of boys. Just a year later, they apply it to themselves, says Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the UW's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and one of the study's authors.

“That begins to affect their self-confidence and self-concept," he says. Eventually, that’s going to have an impact on their careers, their aspirations, what they look forward to and how they identify themselves.”

He says that could explain why boys do better on SAT tests to get into college and are more likely to go into engineering and computer science fields. They don’t have to fight a stereotype. Girls do. That just gets harder when they hit high school and really worry about fitting in. 

The study, which is published in the March/April issue of Child Development, involved 247 elementary students (126 girls and 121 boys) in Seattle Public Schools. It asked them to do several things:

  • use a computer to match words related to math and reading to either girls or boys.
  • look at pictures of a boy and a girl both doing math or reading and choose which one liked it more.
  • look at pictures of girls and boys doing math or reading and determine which one was more like them.

The researchers say the children who participated in the study are likely representative of most American kids, but not necessarily those in other countries. One reason Dario Cvencek, lead author of the study, says he became interested in the subject is the contrast between attitudes in the former Yugoslavia, where he grew up, and those in the United States, where he went to college.

"When I was a young child, usually the best math students in class were girls," he says. "So, as a boy, I was thinking math was for girls."

Since kids learn stereotypes from their environment, he says people can change what kids see. For instance, adults could show girls examples of where both men and women do math, whether it’s balancing the family budget or calculating batting averages.

Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.