Research from the US on Girls: the stereotype threat

Meeting other Heads of Schools is always interesting and uplifting; meeting other Heads of Schools who are actively engaged in developing and promoting research on girls’ education is inspiring. So it was at the NAPSG conference in Seattle, where I had the good fortune to meet and spend time with Ann V Klotz, the super Head of Laurel School, Shaker Heights, Ohio, who pointed me in the direction of their school’s Center for Research on Girls. Laurel School – which has a fabulous motto: ‘Dream. Dare. Do’ – has invested in research into how girls learn best, and their resources are freely available to educators, girls and parents around the world, which is just how research should be accessed. Mrs Klotz is an alumna of The Agnes Irwin School, Rosemont, Pennsylvania, which is itself developing a Center for the Advancement of Girls, again investing in research on girls’ education, and it is absolutely tremendous to see these initiatives.

One of the areas covered by the Center for Research on Girls (CRG) is that of ‘stereotype threat’, and if you have a moment, I thoroughly recommend that you read their briefing papers about how this affects girls. It is a phenomenon which has been identified particularly – but not exclusively – in Maths tests, and the material produced by the CRG, aimed at teachers, parents and girls themselves, draws attention to the circumstances in which stereotype threat can cause a student effectively to undermine her own performance, simply because she is aware – often at a subconscious level – of the existence of a negative stereotype.

Interestingly, studies have shown that women perform less well in tests when they are led to believe that the person administering the exam is sexist; they perform less well too when they take the tests alongside men, so embedded is this negative stereotype in their understanding of the world, and how they view it. Incredibly, even a reference to gender – a simple question requiring a response about whether one is male or female – can have a suppressing effect on performance. A study in 2008 calculated that ‘4,700 more girls a year would receive AP calculus credit if the question about the students’ gender were moved to the end of the test’.

Of course, forearmed is forewarned, and the real value of this research by the CRG is, by highlighting this issue (among, it must be said, many others), that the substance of the stereotype can be unpicked and the negative effect on girls guarded against. It is tremendously important that we do not forget that we are still in a period of social transition, and that matters concerning gender still have the potential to hold back our daughters. Those of us concerned with the education of girls are seeking a world in which gender ceases to be a barrier to men or to women; we seek a fairer, more equitable, happier balance. The more we can understand through research, the better. Let’s share what we know!

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