This perception no longer rings true for students aged 14 to 16, since girls are now seen as more skilled than boys in mathematics. These are the conclusions of a PhD study conducted by Isabelle Plante of the Université de Montreal Department of Psychology.
Common perceptions were that math was the monopoly of boys, while French-language class was the stronghold of girls. “That was the perception in the 1970s, however, we didn’t know if today’s kids saw things the same way,” says Plante. “My research is the first of its kind to review such stereotypes.”
Close to 1,000 francophone boys and girls in grades six, eight and 10, agreed to answer a 32-question survey. In grade six, 75 percent of boys believe math is a male subject. However, in grades eight and 10, only 50 percent of boys share that belief. The other half is convinced of the contrary. “In fact, it is a bit more than 50 percent who believe that girls are better than boys. But that trend isn’t statistically significant,” says Plante.
What’s more, 75 percent of girls in all three grades believe they are better suited for math than boys. According to Plante, other studies have also revealed this role reversal in Australia, France and the United States.
“This change could reflect a social change,” says Manon Théorêt who supervised the research along with Olga Favreau. “In the 1970s, many stereotypes circulated. That is less acceptable today.”
The perception of skills for French-language class has not changed. “It is unanimous for boys and girls at all three levels: 98 percent believe it is a discipline better suited for girls,” says Plante.
According to Théorêt, there are three possible reasons why this stereotype still persists: first, perception is based on the reality of academic performance; second, media attention given to the academic struggle of boys could convince many of them they are not cut out for school; third, it could reflect the stereotype that school is for girls.
The study demonstrates how boys need to be encouraged to persevere at school. This is especially true for French-language class because language is the basis of all other disciplines, including math.
Partners in research: The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
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