Self-Assessment Matters

July 29, 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.

As described in yesterday’s post, sociologist Shelley Correll found that boys assess their mathematical abilities higher than girls with similar past mathematical achievement. So what difference does this make?

Correll found that higher mathematical self-assessment among students of equal abilities increased students’ odds of enrolling in high school calculus and choosing a quantitative college major. In her sample, she found that boys were 1.2 times more likely than their equally capable female counterparts to enroll in calculus. When girls and boys assessed themselves as equally mathematically competent, the gender difference disappeared, and girls and boys were equally likely to enroll in calculus.

Likewise, 4 percent of female students compared with 12 percent of male students in Correll’s sample chose a college major in engineering, mathematics, or the physical sciences. Although controlling for mathematical self-assessment did not eliminate this gender difference in college major choice, it did reduce the difference.

These findings suggest that gender differences in self-assessment — separate from any differences in actual ability — can partially account for the disproportionately high numbers of men in the quantitative professions. It makes sense that if girls don’t believe they have the ability to become a scientist or engineer, they will choose to be something else.

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