Boys Assess Their Math Skills Higher than Girls Do

July 27, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

Fewer girls than boys say they are interested in science or engineering careers. The work of Shelley Correll, a sociologist at Stanford University, sheds light on why this might be

Research by sociologist Shelley Correll helps explain how girls’ and women’s seemingly voluntary decisions to avoid science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers are influenced by the cultural belief that science and math are male domains. She found that, among students with equivalent past achievement in math, boys assessed their mathematical ability higher than girls did.

Looking at the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, a national data set of more than 16,000 high school students, Correll identified three items as indicators of mathematical self-assessment:

“Mathematics is one of my best subjects,” “I have always done well in math,” and “I get good marks in math.” Students were asked to agree or disagree, on a six-point scale, with these statements during their sophomore year of high school.

Student mathematical achievement was approximated through past math test scores and average math grades that students received in high school. Correll’s analysis showed that high school boys were more likely than their female counterparts of equal past mathematical performance to believe that they were competent at mathematics. Interestingly, the effect was reversed when the students assessed verbal ability: Female students made significantly higher self-assessments of verbal ability, controlling for actual verbal performance.

This suggests that stereotypes about gender influence students’ perceptions of their abilities in particular fields. Contrary to what some might think, boys do not assess their task competence higher than girls do in every area, just in the areas considered to be masculine domains. Correll first noticed this apparent gender difference in self-assessment when she was teaching high school chemistry.

For those of you who teach math or science, have you ever noticed that girls tend to assess their abilities lower than boys?

Avatar By:   |   July 27, 2011


  1. Avatar Tax Assessment says:

    Is this why there are more chartered accountants who are guys than girls? Well, just kidding. Nice post mate! 🙂

  2. Avatar Christianne Corbett says:

    S Jones,

    You can read more about this study in chapter 4 of Why So Few? at

  3. Avatar S jones says:

    I would like to see more on this study. It’s difficult to make an accurate assessment from this short post of its findings.

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