Parents overestimate sons’ maths skills more than daughters’, study finds

<span>Researchers said parents tended to be overconfident about their children’s academic performance in reading and maths.</span><span>Photograph: Robert Daly/Getty Images</span>
Researchers said parents tended to be overconfident about their children’s academic performance in reading and maths.Photograph: Robert Daly/Getty Images

Parents are more likely to overestimate maths ability in sons than daughters, according to research that suggests that gender stereotypes at home may hinder the progress of female students.

The findings, presented in a lecture at University College London this week, found that parents tend to be overconfident about their children’s academic performance in reading and maths regardless of gender. But, in maths, parents overestimated boys’ skills to a significantly greater extent.

“We know that gender stereotypes can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Dr Valentina Tonei, an economist at the University of Southampton who presented the research in a talk at the Institute of Education. “We sometimes hear that girls don’t like maths, but what has been done to look at why they don’t like maths? I’m quite convinced that this is not that girls dislike maths, but that it is the result of years of being exposed to stereotypes.”

There continues to be a substantial gender gap in maths, physics and engineering, with female students only making up 23% of A-level candidates for physics and 37% for maths in the UK and forming an even smaller proportion beyond degree level. The government’s former social mobility commissioner, the headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, told a select committee in 2022 that girls did not choose physics A-level because they disliked “hard maths”, prompting anger from leading scientists.

The latest work, suggesting that parental bias could play a role, follows previous findings that teachers expect girls to be worse at maths and mark them accordingly.

Tonei and colleagues analysed data from about 3,000 children and their parents who had participated in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). Parents were asked to rate their child’s ability in maths and reading at various time points and these scores were compared with the children’s actual performance on Naplan tests, the Australian equivalent of Sats, taken at the age of eight to nine years old.

The test scores showed a slight gender difference, with girls achieving the equivalent of an extra 1.7% on reading and boys an extra 0.6% on maths. In reading, parents tended to rate the ability of girls more highly – but in proportion with girls’ superior test scores. In maths, though, parental overconfidence in boys’ skills significantly outstripped their marginally better performance.

However, this gender bias was not seen in the roughly one-tenth of parents who happened to answer the questionnaire after they had received their child’s scores. The effect was also smaller in highly educated mothers and those working in predominantly female-dominated occupations.

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“Parents need clear and objective information about skills and abilities to support their children in the best way,” said Tonei. “A lot of biases are unconscious so we need to act early in life. These test scores can be quite a powerful tool in terms of how to change the beliefs of parents.”

The research also hinted that parental bias could have an impact on a child’s educational trajectory. When the researchers tracked how children were performing in their next Naplan tests two years later, those whose parents were most overconfident about their abilities tended to do better. In line with this, the gap between girls and boys widened in maths.

“The more parents overestimate, the higher the level of skills of these children two years later,” said Tonei. “Because parents overestimate mathematical skills more in boys, it leads to an amplification of the difference in mathematical skills between boys and girls. This can contribute to a widening of the gap over time.”

Prof Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Aston University who has studied the question of gender differences in the brain, said the findings fitted with a wealth of evidence in psychology that gender stereotypes could affect parenting. “Psychology has known for some time that parents expect different things of boys and girls,” she said, adding that it was encouraging that providing objective scores appeared to help counteract this effect. “I thought that was quite hopeful,” she said.