math test

The myth that women are inherently inferior to men when it comes to math skills persists in many areas, and it’s especially problematic because it actually reinforces itself. When women and girls are told before a math test that they are expected to perform less well than the men or boys, they generally earn noticeably lower scores. But surprisingly, that doesn’t happen when they take the test under a fake name. Especially weirdly, that effect holds regardless of whether the fake name sounds male or female.

In a recent study headed by Shen Zhang of the University of Wisconsin, 182 undergrads were given a multiple choice math test. Before the test, all the students were told that men typically outperform women at math. From previous studies, the researchers knew to expect that the women would underperform the men after the announcement was made.

But then they had half the participants use one of four fake names on the test.  Two of the fake names sounded male, and two sounded female.

When the results were in, the women who used their real names did underperform the male students. But the women who used fake names did just as well as the men, regardless of whether they’d signed their test “Jacob” or “Jessica,” which indicates that anonymity, not gender identity, was the key to their improved performance.

According to Zhang, the results indicate that the women’s impaired math performance is due to the fear of making a negative stereotype seem true for them personally.

“Women who used a fictitious name, and thus had their self unlinked from the math test, showed significantly higher math performance and reported less self-threat and distraction, relative to those who used their real names,” the study said.

The use of real or fake names had no effect on the performance of the men, which makes sense considering that the men didn’t go into the test hearing about how they were probably going to suck at it.

Via io9/Photo: Shutterstock