Girls are told they are supposed to experience math anxiety and so they claim to on surveys but they are not actually more anxious during math classes and exams, according to a new paper. 

Sociology surveys suggest that females are more anxious when it comes to mathematics than their male peers. But education researchers identified a critical limitation of previous papers examining math anxiety: They asked students to describe more generalized perceptions of mathematics anxiety, rather than assessing anxiety during actual math classes and exams.

To address this limitation, the researchers conducted two surveys in which they collected data from approximately 700 students from grades 5 to 11. In the first analysis, they compared students' responses on two different measures: A questionnaire measuring anxiety about math tests, and their real-time self-reports of anxiety directly before and during a math exam. In the second analysis, they compared questionnaire measures of math anxiety with repeated real-time assessments obtained during math classes via mobile devices.

Findings from the two analyses replicated prior research and existing gender stereotypes, showing that girls reported more math anxiety than boys on generalized assessments, despite similar math achievement. However, the data obtained during math exams and classes revealed that girls did not experience more anxiety than boys in real-life settings.

The data further suggest that lower self-reported competence in mathematics may underlie the discrepancy between the levels of anxiety reported by girls in the two settings. The researchers note that general questionnaires may allow inaccurate beliefs about math ability to negatively bias girls' assessments of their math abilities and exacerbate their math anxiety.

In other words, girls are reading survey results contending they don't like math or are under stereotype threat about it and then state on surveys they don't like math, which later leads them to go into medicine or another difficult, but not math-intensive, field.

Upcoming in Psychological Science, no DOI yet.