Self-fulfilling prophecies due to stereotype threat: are girls bad at math?

Note: This research is part of a series of assignments for Cognitive Psychology, part of my MSc in Psychology.

Growing up in post-communist Romania, we always knew what our future held for us: my brother was meant to study mathematics, and I was meant to study humanities. However, 90% of girls in high school were in humanities, while boys represented 80% of the math courses. The belief behind this was that girls are not good at mathematics. 

Note: Stereotyping is inaccurate and can refer to age, gender, race, or shoe size. One of the negative consequences of stereotyping is stereotype threat, exposure to a negative stereotype in students affects their performance. From khanacademymedicine. (2015, January 23). Stereotypes stereotype threat and self-fulfilling prophecies | MCAT | Khan Academy [Video]. YouTube. Accessed on July 7, 2021.

There is no difference between boys’ and girls’ performance in math (Scafidi & Bui, 2010) as gender is not a predictor of academic skills (Campbell et al., 1996). However, girls tend to attribute their failure to their lack of ability compared to boys (Stipek, 1984). So, is the stereotype that girls are bad at math a self-fulfilling prophecy? Women are vulnerable to stereotype threat, even when they see themselves as mathematical, and the implicit stereotype affects their performance in math (Gerstenberg et al., 2012). Furthermore, gender-biased expectations of parents and teachers influence children’s attitude and performance in math, with girls having more negative attitudes towards maths, which play an essential role in their performance, subject-choosing, and pursuit of related careers  (Gunderson et al., 2012), even if they have positive attitudes towards math (Shapiro & Williams, 2011). 

Figure 1. Self-fulfilling prophecy at work


Note: The self-fulfilling prophecy has also been referred to as the “bootstrapped induction”, the “Barnesian performativity” or “The Oedipus effect” (Biggs, 2011). Reprinted from Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and The Pygmalion Effect, by D. Schaedig, in SimplyPsychology, 2020, August 24. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from

Ten years ago, I learned about a fixed mindset and how approaching learning with a growth mindset was more likely to ensure performance or success (Dweck, 2006). Unfortunately, when it comes to girls, it is not an ability that impedes their success in math but their capacity to cope with difficulty and confusion, with girls being more likely to consider math a gift rather than a subject they can learn (Dweck, 2007). Breaking this stereotype, I taught myself how to code and obtained a career in STEM, where I am currently coaching women to build awareness, and growth mindset and break self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Note: Stereotypes affect you subconsciously and have an influence on your performance in real ways. From CNA Insider. (2014, June 3). Threat of Stereotypes | Social Experiments Illustrated | Channel NewsAsia Connect [Video]. YouTube. Accessed July 7, 2021.


Campbell, P. B. & Storo, J. N. & Education Development Center, Inc., Newton, MA.  (1996).  Girls Are…Boys Are… Myths, Stereotypes, and Gender Differences. Math and Science for the Coed Classroom.  [S.l.] :  Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse,

Dweck, C. S. (2007). Is Math a Gift? Beliefs That Put Females at Risk. In S. J. Ceci & W. M. Williams (Eds.), Why aren’t more women in science?: Top researchers debate the evidence (pp. 47–55). American Psychological Association.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Gerstenberg, F. X. R., Imhoff, R., & Schmitt, M. (2012). ‘Women Are Bad at Math, but I’M Not, Am I?’ Fragile Mathematical Self–Concept Predicts Vulnerability to A Stereotype Threat Effect on Mathematical Performance. European Journal of Personality26(6), 588–599.

Gunderson, E.A., Ramirez, G., Levine, S.C. et al. The Role of Parents and Teachers in the Development of Gender-Related Math Attitudes. Sex Roles 66, 153–166 (2012).

Scafidi, T., & Bui, K. (2010). Gender similarities in math performance from middle school through high school. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 37(3), 252–255.

Shapiro, J. R., & Williams, A. M. (2011, July 31). The Role of Stereotype Threats in Undermining Girls’ and Women’s Performance and Interest in STEM Fields. Sex Roles. Springer Nature.

Stipek, D. J. (1984, December 1). Sex differences in children’s attributions for success and failure on math and spelling tests. Sex Roles. Springer Nature.

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