Stereotype threat, risk-taking and healthy competition

It is not just sport where the presence of boys intimidates girls into being less competitive. Girls have also been shown to take less risks and behave less competitively in other co-ed environments including in maths and other STEM classes, as well as in activities where females stereotyped as “bad” at something in comparison to males. However, without the presence of boys, girls are less self-conscious, more willing to take chances, and less afraid to show their interest, knowledge and skill in traditionally male-dominated fields.

• Professor Christia Spears Brown has found that the endorsement of sexualised gender stereotypes leads to girls prioritising their attractiveness for the attention and approval of boys. “These stereotypes,” she writes , “are pervasive in children’s media, clothing, and toys”. Indeed, previous research shows that by primary school, boys and girls already believe “girls’ sexualized attractiveness to be incompatible with intelligence and competence”. Furthermore, Spears Brown’s study found that higher endorsement of sexualised gender stereotypes in Grade 7 girls predicts lower academic self-efficacy and mastery of academic goals in Grade 8 (Spears Brown, 2019, p. 523).

• An American study comparing the risk-taking and competitive behaviour of girls and boys in a closely-matched girls’ school and co-educational school in an experiment involving a financial risk found that girls from the single-sex school were more competitive than girls from the co-ed school and equally as competitive as boys at the co-ed school (Laury, Lee & Schnier, 2019, p. 10).

• 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).

• In another American study, students in an introductory biology course at a co-educational university were divided into small groups with different gender ratios —100% female, 75% female, 50% female, 25% female and 0% female. The researchers found that “as the percent [sic] of women increases in small groups, course grades also increase for all students, and that women (but not men) reported more positive perceptions of their group members’ performance”. This is consistent with previous research finding that increasing the percentage of females in groups can lead to positive outcomes for women including increased confidence, career aspirations, participation, engagement and task performance, as well as decreased anxiety (Sullivan, Ballen & Cotner, 2018).

• 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) showed that girls underperformed in a test they were led to believe measured mathematical ability in mixed-sex groups, but not in all-female groups.

• However, as shown in another influential study, women are not born less competitive than men; they become so through the process of socialisation. Girls become less competitive than boys during puberty in patriarchal societies, but there is no difference in male and female competitiveness at any age in matrilineal societies, such as the Khasi tribe in northeast India (Andersen et al., 2013, p. 1438).

• 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 “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). (Also see, Booth, Cardona-Sosa & Nolen, 2018.)

• 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).

• 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).

• 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, “single-sex education shields girls from exposure to the prevailing gendered society and provides a favourable atmosphere for their success in maths and science” (p. 99).

• 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 [sic] 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 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).