Stereotype threat, risk-taking and healthy competition

• Andrew Hill (2015) found that in American students aged under 16, grades in mathematics and science are negatively impacted by the effect of opposite gender friends. He suggests that girls may benefit from single-sex classes in traditionally male-dominated subjects such as mathematics and science, stating that the negative effect of co-educational classes for girls “is consistent with gender socialization effects in the existing developmental psychology and economics of education literature” showing that “adolescent females may shy away from competition and perform less well in mathematics in the presence of males” (Hill, 2015, p. 168).

• Summarising recent research on the effect of gender on competitiveness, Buser, Niederle and Oosterbeek (2014, p. 1411) state: “Experiments have shown that for women both the performance in as well as willingness to enter competitive environments is reduced when the competition group includes males (Gneezy, Niederle, and Rustichini 2003; Balafoutas and Sutter 2012; Niederle, Segal, and Vesterlund 2013). Similarly, Huguet and Regner (2007) show that girls underperform in mixed-sex groups (but not in all female groups) in a test they were led to believe measures mathematical ability.”

• Booth and Nolen (2014) summarised the evidence gathered from two “real-stakes gamble” experiments they conducted investigating the risk-taking preferences of males and females at school and university, both of which found that females in single-sex environments take more risks and act more competitively than those in co-ed environments (sections 3.2.3 & 4.4). With regard to the school experiment, Booth and Nolen (2009b) wrote that: “the bulk of our evidence suggests that a girl’s environment plays an important role in explaining why she chooses not to compete”. They found “robust differences” in the behaviour of girls in all-female and mixed environments. In sum, “girls from single-sex schools behave more competitively than do coeducational girls” (p. 20). (Also see, Booth & Nolen, 2009a; and Booth, Cardona-Sosa & Nolen, 2014).

• Booth and Nolen (2014) proposed that there may be a reduction in stereotype threats in single-sex environments where females do not feel “inhibited by culturally-driven norms about the appropriate model of female behaviour” (that is, avoiding risk). Alternatively, in all-female environments, friendships formed with other females may enhance their confidence, “leading these women to feel more comfortable in making risky choices than women in coed classes” (section 6).

• In a separate study, Booth, Cardona-Sosa and Nolen (2013, p. 16) conjectured that when young women are stereotyped as “bad” at something (such as maths or economics) they would do better in all-female classes where there is a reduction in “psychological threats caused by studying with males”. They concluded that the results of their experiment, which showed that females assigned to single-sex classes outperformed those in co-ed classes, demonstrated that “there is evidence that all-female classes have a direct effect on pass rates and course scores as predicted by the reduction of stereotype threat” (p. 18).

• Suzanne Link’s 2012 study of the 1999 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data for South Korean middle schools — which found “positive effects of single-sex schooling for girls” in mathematics — also found that the test score gender gap is “especially large for girls from low parental support backgrounds who attend coeducational schools”, suggesting that “these girls might be somehow harmed by the presence of boys when learning in a stereotypically male subject such as math[s]” (p. 17).

• A 2012 study by Doo Hwan Kim and Helen Law of the gender gap in mathematics found that in South Korea — where girls attending single-sex schools outperform co-ed girls in Korean, English and maths — “single-sex education shields girls from exposure to the prevailing gendered society and provides a favourable atmosphere for their success in maths and science”.

• A 2011 study by Titze, Jansen and Heil compared accuracy in a test of mental rotation in girls from single-sex and co-ed schools. In previous research, this test of visual-spatial ability has consistently been performed better by males than females (p. 2). Titze et al. found that Year 12 girls at single-sex schools outperformed girls at co-ed schools in the mental rotation test. Boys performed the test less than half a standard deviation better than single-sex girls but a full standard deviation better than co-ed girls. Titze et al. propose that it is the “less gender-stereotyped development” of girls in single-sex schools that may explain this outcome (p. 5).

• Cherney and Campbell’s 2011 paper found that “girls in single-sex schools had significantly higher self-esteem and higher achievement motive” than girls in co-ed schools (p. 721). They also found that girls at single-sex schools achieved mean test scores of 5.1 in maths compared with 4.2 for girls from co-ed schools (p. 719). Cherney and Campbell noted that girls in single-sex schools have “predominantly female math and science teachers” and that “it is possible that girls in single-sex schools are more likely to perceive their math ability as malleable” than girls in co-ed schools (p. 722).

• In a report authored by Dr Richard Holmgren for the US National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) analysing the 2013 High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) conducted by Indiana University — which surveyed 2,013 girls attending NCGS member schools, 5,210 girls from co-ed independent schools and 5,741 girls from co-ed public schools — it was found that 95.5% of girls at NCGS schools agreed or strongly agreed that they actively participated in classroom discussions. Of these, 41.5% of girls at NCGS schools strongly agreed that they were engaged by teachers in classroom discussions, in contrast to 33.3% of girls in co-ed independent schools and 12.9% of girls in co-ed public schools (Holmgren, 2014, p. 4).

• In 2011, Minjeong Lyu and Diane Gill’s study of co-educational and single-sex physical education classes in in South Korea concluded that “same-sex classes lead to higher competence, confidence, achievement, enjoyment and effort” and that “females are more affected by class type than males” (p. 256). They write that, in spite of the argument that co-education gives students “the opportunity to understand each other and reduce inaccurate gender role perceptions, there are negative side effects in coeducational physical education” (p. 256). In sum, “same-sex classes may be the better teaching environment in adolescent physical education, particularly for girls” (p. 257).