A study by two University of Texas sociologists, Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Melissa Humphries, has indicated that high school teachers tend to view white female students as being weaker at math than white male students even when test results indicate similar ability. The study if the first to show a significant perception bias against white girls.
Teachers were asked what Riegle-Crumb calls a "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" question: whether their class was too easy, just right or too hard for a particular student.
"Our results indicated that white girls are about 40 percent less likely than white boys to be perceived by teachers as being in a math class that is âtoo easy' for them," Riegle-Crumb said. "Additionally, white girls are about 33 percent more likely than white boys to be perceived as being in too difficult of a class."
Dr Riegle-Crumb expressed surprise that the study found no difference in the degree of perception bias regardless of the gender of the teacher concerned.
The study analyzed data from 15,000 student and their teachers from sophomore in high school through post-secondary education.
"If the math bias against females is present in elementary school, which past research shows it is, and continues through high school and then college, then it's much less likely that you will find women pursuing math-related high-status occupations in science and technology," said Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb.
The study that indicates that the widespread belief that math is easier for boys than for girls can be at least partially attributed to this perception and in reality there may be no difference between the sexes when it comes to raw math ability.
Riegle-Crumb says the misconception that white girls can't handle math persists "Because the idea that men and women are different in this regard is considered natural, and not discriminatory." At the same time, teachers may be more aware of race and ethnicity – and the problems of racial discrimination – than they are when it comes to gender.
Humphries said that the study highlighted the importance of challenging people's assumptions.