In America, the last few years saw young females and males achieve math parity for the first time ever.  But girls are still anxious about math, and that has nothing to do with teachers or outreach or the oppression of a liberal democracy.

Mathematics anxiety is a state of discomfort associated with performing mathematics tasks and is believed to affect both children and adults, having a negative impact on their mathematics performance.   That makes sense.  Math is difficult and difficult subjects make people nervous.

While plenty of school-age children suffer from mathematics anxiety and both genders are affected by it, girls’ maths performance is more likely to suffer than boys’, according to a new analysis. Researchers from Cambridge University set out to investigate 433 British secondary school children and determine whether mathematics anxiety has any effect on mathematics performance on boys and girls. The team controlled for test anxiety, a related construct, but which isn’t typically controlled for in mathematics anxiety studies.

The investigators found children with higher mathematics anxiety have a lower mathematics performance, but girls showed higher levels of mathematics anxiety than boys and it was a significant indicator of their performance. The fact that there were no gender differences in maths performance despite higher mathematics anxiety in girls could suggest that girls could have the potential to perform better in mathematics were it not for higher levels of anxiety.

The results from this study provide strong evidence to show that secondary school children experience mathematics anxiety. Lead author Dénes Szűcs commented, “Mathematics anxiety warrants attention in the classroom because it could have negative consequences for later mathematics education, particularly as it is thought to develop during the primary school years.” Mathematics anxiety could account for the reasons why only 7% of pupils in the UK study mathematics at A level and why the number of students taking maths at university level is in decline.

Citation: Amy Devine, Kayleigh Fawcett, Denes Szucs and Ann Dowker, 'Gender differences in mathematics anxiety and the relation to mathematics performance while controlling for test anxiety', Behavioral and Brain Functions (in press)