The Influence of Gender on Maths Anxiety Levels

The Influence of Gender on Maths Anxiety Levels

Many definitions of maths anxiety have been proposed, but all contain the same basic principles: that maths anxiety is characterised by high levels of tension, dread and nervousness, which impair an individual’s ability to solve mathematics problems in academic and real-world situations (Richardson ; Suinn, 1973; Ashcraft ; Faust, 1994), hence affecting performance in both applied and basic maths tasks (Miller ; Bichsel, 2004). This distinguishes maths anxiety from general anxiety, which refers to a general worrying disposition appearing in many situational contexts (Hill et al., 2016), although some evidence suggests a moderate correlation (Hembree, 1990). Datta and Scarfpin (1983) split maths anxiety into mental block anxiety, where certain mathematical triggers create mental barriers, and socio-cultural anxiety, which stems from common cultural beliefs about maths (cited by Chinn, 2009); Nolting’s (2011) view of maths anxiety as a learned condition seems to support both types (cited by Whyte & Anthony, 2012). The traditional view of maths as a male domain appears to be particularly influential; it can lead females to believe they are less mathematically able (Bander & Betz, 1981, cited by Hill et al.) and make them expect lower levels of success (Watt, 2006), suggesting gender stereotypes may explain why girls’ mathematics achievement was historically lower than boys’ (Grootenboer & Hemmings, 2007).

While more recent research has demonstrated that in high school children the gender gap in achievement is narrowing (Hyde, Lindberg, Linn, Ellis & Williams, 2008), empirical studies consistently find that females face higher maths anxiety levels than males; this difference is typically present in older students but can also present itself in those of primary age (Hill et al., 2016), and persist into adulthood (Miller & Bischel, 2004). Research into whether maths anxiety can surface as early as primary school has been mixed, with the majority of studies finding no gender differences (Ramirez, Gunderson, Levine & Beilock, 2013). However, a smaller number of studies report significant gender differences, such as Hill et al., who found that in their sample of 981 Italian students in primary and early secondary school, girls showed significantly higher maths anxiety than boys across the board. In terms of secondary schools, Chinn’s (2009) study found that 2-6% of students were ‘often’ anxious about maths, with maths anxiety having a relatively consistent influence through Years 7-11, and females having higher anxiety levels than males in every year. This study can be considered to have used a highly representative sample, studying 2,084 students from 14 mainstream and 5 independent schools from both rural and urban areas across England, meaning the findings could be legitimately generalised to the whole population. Furthermore, Miller and Bichsel’s study found that females (M = 212.23, SD = 7.86) reported higher mean maths anxiety levels than males (M = 180.63, SD = 7.94) and had a slightly smaller spread of data. This study has a particularly strong sample; even though they only studied 100 participants, ages ranged from 18-66 and participants had varying levels of college education, making the sample more representative of the adult population. Joyce, Hassal, Montaño and Anes (2006) reported similar findings; in their sample of 178 first-year UK business students, they found a significant difference in the mean maths anxiety ratings between males (M = 57.11) and females (M = 62.21). The participants completed the Maths Anxiety Rating Scale before any formal university teaching had taken place; therefore their ratings could be regarded as an indicator of the extent to which maths anxiety at the secondary school level has a lasting influence. However, these findings are less generalizable, due to the fact that all participants came from the same university and the same course, but they do support Betz’s (1978) finding that maths anxiety is prevalent in college students, and more so in females.

Therefore, this study looked to investigate, with the decreasing gap in maths performance between males and females (Hyde, Lindberg, Linn, Ellis ; Williams, 2008), whether the difference in anxiety levels between the genders has also changed. Given that our sample consisted of first year Psychology students, our research aimed to fill a gap by extending on the work of Joyce, Hassal, Montaño and Anes (2006) to determine whether their findings are applicable to subjects other than business, where the students were highly likely to come from a literate/arts background. This is important to investigate at the university level, as maths anxiety is often detrimental (Chinn, 2009) and can prevent the development of useful vocational skills (Joyce et al). Our primary focus was to assess the self-reported anxiety levels of this sample in relation to mathematical statistics, and based on all the previous research believed we would find a significant correlation between gender and maths anxiety, with girls still having higher maths anxiety levels than boys at the undergraduate level.

Method

Participants

A total of 379 first year Psychology students from the University of Sussex participated in this study as part of their ‘Research Skills In Psychology 1′ module requirements. There were 81 male and 298 female participants between the ages of 17 and 46. Participation was voluntary and by completing the study all participants consented to be involved.

Materials

Materials used were a computer with Internet access and a 22-point self-report Maths Questionnaire which investigated the participants’ previous experiences with learning maths. Some examples of questions include: ‘If you studied GCSE Maths, what grade did you get?’ and ‘How anxious do you feel about learning statistics?’ Fifteen of the questions required the participants to select an answer from a 3-point Likert scale that was tailored to each question.

Design

A questionnaire design was used.

Procedure

Participants were instructed to locate the Maths Questionnaire on Canvas at the beginning of their Research Skills lab session. Participants were instructed to take the necessary time to complete the questionnaire individually during the lab session and to submit it once they were happy with the answers they had provided. If participants were unable to or did not wish to complete the study within their lab session, they were given the option to complete it in their own time.

Results

One female participant was excluded from our analysis due to missing data, reducing the data set to 378 participants. As Table 1 demonstrates, we found that over half of the males in our sample classed themselves as ‘Not At All’ anxious about learning statistics, whereas over half of the females in our sample felt ‘A Little’ anxious. Additionally, few males rated themselves as ‘Very’ anxious about statistics, while the amount of females who considered themselves ‘Not At All’ anxious and ‘Very’ anxious was equal, supporting the idea that females are more likely to have higher maths anxiety levels.

Table 1

Gender and its Relation to the Frequency (Overall Percentage) of Maths Anxiety Ratings

Gender Maths Anxiety Rating

Not At All A Little Very

Male (21.4%) 41 (10.8%) 32 (8.5%) 8 (2.1%)

Female (78.6%) 58 (15.3%) 181 (47.9%) 58 (15.3%)

A Chi-Square Test of Association found a significant association between gender and maths anxiety ratings (?2 (2) = 32.07, p < .001), with further inspection of this data suggesting females tend to have higher levels of maths anxiety than males, with this occurring more often than would be expected by chance. This appears to support the idea that gender is an important influencing factor in the maths anxiety levels of undergraduates.

Discussion

Our study found a significant association between gender and maths anxiety levels, with females appearing to be more likely than males to have high levels of maths anxiety; hence the data supports our hypothesis. If a significant association had not been found, this would have meant that gender does not have a significant influence on maths anxiety, so any differences would be due to another intervening variable.

Therefore, this means the question we explored is of importance to both the individual and the science of psychology and is a topic that warrants further investigation, particularly due to the potentially extensive negative impacts of maths anxiety. This also means our findings are of high value, as they show that gender differences in maths anxiety are still persisting and need to be addressed in some manner. We believe we found these results due to the influence of math-gender stereotypes, but as we did not investigate this variable in our study we cannot comment on whether this is a valid assumption.

Through finding a significant association between our variables, we particularly extended upon the work of Joyce, Hassal, Monaño and Anes (2006); their significant difference in mean anxiety levels between the genders reflects our results, where the association appears to stem from the males in our sample being more likely than females to rate their maths anxiety as low. This contributes to the available literature, as it suggests the experience of maths anxiety is not limited to those who study specific undergraduate courses, so it is potentially a characteristic that is carried over from previous schooling. Our findings are also supported by studies with much larger sample sizes; Hunt, Clark-Carter and Sheffield’s (2011) study of 1,153 Staffordshire University undergraduates found significant differences in mean anxiety levels of females (M = 82.30) and males (M = 74.84) across 5 different faculties including the sciences, the arts and engineering/technology. Furthermore, Miller and Bichsel’s (2004) study found significantly higher mean anxiety levels in females from university age onwards, further supporting our findings while also demonstrating the extensive and potentially lasting influence of the maths anxiety that is acquired at school. Given that all of these studies came to the same conclusion, with samples containing participants from different age ranges, degrees and locations, there appears to be a real, meaningful link between gender and maths anxiety that is persisting through time, highlighting the importance of continuing investigations.

A limitation of this study was that the questionnaire only featured one question relating to maths anxiety, which was further limited to one specific area of maths. Therefore, our results may have been influenced by the perceived difficulty of statistics in particular, so it may not be a completely accurate measure of maths anxiety as a whole. Therefore, if we were to complete this study again, we would include more questions relating to our variable, with broader questions about maths anxiety, and also more specific questions about different areas, such as anxiety about geometry and algebra. This would allow us to bring more specificity to our analysis and hence make our conclusions more pertinent to the topic.

Given our findings, the next study we would complete would look at the influence of gender stereotypes on maths anxiety, to investigate whether a causal link between an individual’s math-gender stereotypes and their maths anxiety levels can be established. It would also be interesting to explore whether the strength of these gender stereotypes has a significant impact on their self-reported maths anxiety ratings. This study would be important in building a bigger picture of the issue, allowing us to begin investigations on the respective influences of individual factors and social stigmas on maths anxiety.

This research has important social implications, specifically in relation to the likelihood of females continuing with mathematics at university level and beyond. There is a general consensus that males choose mathematics careers more often than women, but the current shortage of individuals in this domain means it is important to target both males and females for these positions (Watt, 2006). Jones and Smart (1995) argue that reduced female participation in maths from the age of 16 diminishes their access to different opportunities; Ramirez, Gunderson, Levine and Beilock (2013) emphasise how this makes early intervention into maths anxiety vital, as those with the most potential could simply avoid maths-related careers. This means we may be losing many opportunities for innovation, so the significant association between gender and maths anxiety found by our study warrants further investigation, in order to find ways to increase the participation of females in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career pathways.