Girls’ maths ability underestimated due to stereotypes, study finds

Perception girls not as numerate as boys takes root from as young as nine

Gender stereotyping is resulting in girls’ performance at maths being significantly underestimated by teachers and parents from primary school onwards, according to new research.

A study of 8,000 pupils in Ireland concludes that the perception that girls are not as good as boys is occurring at all levels of achievement, with the gap widest for high-performing girls.

The study's authors – Dr Pat O'Connor, Dr Selina McCoy and Dr Delma Byrne – say the findings raise concerns for girls' subsequent maths performance in a society where it is highly valued as an indicator of intelligence.

The research, which draws on the Growing Up in Ireland study, shows that as early as nine years old, girls’ performance at maths is being underestimated by teachers and parents alike relative to boys.


The study found that in national standardised tests, parents and teachers are more likely to rate children with median or above levels of maths achievement as “excellent” or “above average” respectively.

However, girls are systematically less likely to be rated “excellent” than boys, even taking account of their actual performance levels.

The gap is largest at higher levels of mathematics attainment. The perceived gap between boys and girls at the highest level is much wider in the case of the parent or primary care giver than in the case of the teacher.

The research says the importance placed on maths performance is reflected in the fact that bonus points are applied to the subject in the Leaving Cert.

It says stereotypes about boys being excellent or above average in maths persist among both teachers and parents, mainly mothers.

“These stereotypes are so strong that they override the evidence of the girls’ and boys’ own achievements in nationally validated mathematics assessments.”

The report concludes that this bias will impact on their career choice, since mathematics is seen as a key element in pursuing highly valued careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Positions perpetuated

It says frequent calls for girls by governments to consider such careers are likely to be ineffective.

“Girls may well feel that they are better off choosing areas which are more compatible with existing gender stereotypes: thus, in many cases perpetuating their position in lower-paid and less personally satisfying career positions,” it states.

The study says other work needs to be done on the extent to which this over-estimation exists in other subject areas and the “extent to which it is reflected in boys’ wider sense of entitlement: a phenomenon which is related to the international reproduction of privilege inside the home and in the wider society”.

The study also references the 2020 Leaving Cert, which it says provided an opportunity to assess the impact of teachers’ subjective assessments, since they were effectively asked to predict how their students would perform.

It says the picture that emerged was one in which teachers presented highly positive assessments of the girls they taught, “arguably reflecting both their own perceptions of their competence as teachers and the girls’ willingness to co-operate with them”.

“Thus, in this context they appeared to be able to transcend the negative stereotypes surrounding girls’ achievements, even in areas such as mathematics, and even in co-educational settings,” the report states.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent