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  • Writer's pictureJulien Morizio

Countering Gender Stereotypes with Growth Mindset

Boys are weaker than girls in reading and writing... but better at mathematics. Is that really so? The average teacher, making an assumption based on their experience with countless students, might say yes. Let's ask another question. Is this gender gap natural? Are girls naturally better at reading and writing and is success in mathematics a male predisposition? The actual answer can get messy, but what we know is that perpetuated generalizations lead to stereotypes.


When students are aware of these stereotypes, they become susceptible to what Steele refers to as stereotype threat: “When you are worried about confirming a stereotype about your group, you get anxious, and as a result, you do worse” (Tough, 2012, p. 96). Therefore, it could be that at least part of the reason why Ashley does not do as well as Jacob in her math class is because she is subconsciously aware that the general belief is that girls do not do as well in math as boys. It has been demonstrated that girls acquire lower math scores due to the anxiety they feel in test situations. They are worried to confirm the stereotype that math is not their strong suit. That anxiety gets in the way of their performance. The same might be the case for boys and literacy.


Here is where growth mindset can help. When students believe that intelligence is malleable, they perform much better academically. A study was conducted in Texas to prove just that. Before a math test, students were exposed to different messages from mentors. All the boys and half the girls listened to an anti-drug message, while the other half of the girls listened to a growth mindset message. The boys averaged an 84 on their test, while girls who also received the anti-drug message averaged a 74 - a significant gap. The group of girls who heard about the growth mindset averaged an 84, closing the gender gap entirely.



All the mentors had to do was tell the students, on a single occasion, that “intelligence is not a finite endowment, but rather an expandable capacity that increases with mental work” (Tough, 2012, p. 97). What that did was encourage students to believe that, individually, they were in control of their academic performance; no generally accepted stereotype could get in the way of that belief.


Imagine what would happen if we all were to repeat the growth mindset message to children. Perhaps modeling it would be difficult as some of us might have gotten used to operating from a fixed mindset. I know that personally, my mindset fluctuates from time to time. However, there is comfort in knowing that as long as we simply share that message, as parents with our children, as teachers with our students, we can help them realize their potential that much more.


 

Sources:

Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents' standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat.Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 645-662.


Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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