Women do better on math tests when they fake their names

Illustration for article titled Women do better on math tests when they fake their names

There's a pernicious myth that says women aren't as good at math as men. And disturbingly, reminding women of this stereotype just before they write a math test will have a detrimental affect on their performance. So what would happen if a woman could pretend to be someone else while writing the test?


Unsurprisingly, and as the title of this post already suggests, women do indeed perform better on math tests when they assume a name other than their own — and this happens regardless of whether they take a male or female name.

As a recent study by Shen Zhang has shown, using another person's name is a kind of hack to overrule the self-reputational threat — the fear some women have of doing poorly when they're concerned that it'll be taken as proof of a stereotype. But removing this pressure seems to alleviate the fear and the distraction.

For the study, Zhang recruited 110 women and 72 men — all of them undergrads — and had them answer 30 multiple-choice math questions. Prior to the test, and in an effort to instill the stereotype threat, all participants were told that men typically outperform women at math. Some of the volunteers were told to write the test under their real name, but some were told to complete the test under one of four different aliases, either Jacob Tyler, Scott Lyons, Jessica Peterson, or Kaitlyn Woods.

When the results were in, men outperformed the women. Thank you, self-reputational threat.

But women who assumed an alias, whether it be male or female, performed better than the women who did not. And — importantly — they did just as well as the men.

"These findings suggest that women's impaired math performance is often due to the threat of confirming a negative stereotype as being true of the self," conclude the researchers.


The researchers recommend the use of non-name identification procedures in testing, as well as coping strategies that "allow stigmatised individuals to disconnect their self from a threatening situation," which they say will disarm negative stereotypes.

Or, we could finally stop telling women that they suck at math. How's that for a novel idea?


Read the entire study at Self and Identity, "L'eggo My Ego: Reducing the Gender Gap in Math by Unlinking the Self from Performance."

Image: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock.




If the women in the study were really worried (even subconsciously) about their performance reinforcing a stereotype about women and math, why did taking a different feminine name improve their performance just the same as taking a different masculine name?

If this really were about the threat to "all women", I would expect that only taking a different masculine name would improve their performance. It seems like anonymity, not gender-identity, made the difference for the female participants.