Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Negatively Affects Female Students

For a long time it was believed that males have better spatial and numerical abilities resulting in their greater aptitude for mathematics compared to females. But research in cognitive development of human infants and children has failed to support these claims. Instead, scientists now have enough evidence to conclude that the same set of biologically based cognitive capacities is responsible for mathematical and scientific reasoning in both the sexes. However, stereotypes that girls and women lack mathematical ability persist and are still widely held by the society. Gender differences in mathematical performance and ability remain a concern as scientists seek to address the under representation of women at the highest levels of mathematics, physical sciences and engineering fields.

Math anxiety is the unpleasant emotional response to mathematics and to the prospect of performing math related skills. More women than men are affected by it. A new study done on elementary school children suggests that a female teacher’s attitude to mathematics affects the performance of her female students. In the study, the more anxious teachers were about math, the lower the math achievement of female students. Moreover, girls who believed in traditional gender ability beliefs such as “boys are good at math and girls are good at reading,” had significantly lower achievement in math at the end of the school year than girls who did not and boys overall. This relationship between the teachers math anxiety and students performance was absent at the beginning of the school year when teachers did not have ample time with the students to affect their performance. It was evident only at the end of the school year. Thus, teachers with high math anxiety specifically affect girls’ math achievement, by influencing girls’ gender-related beliefs about who is good at math. Research suggests that girls are more socially sensitive than boys in early elementary school, thus, it is possible that even with male teachers, a relation between teacher anxiety and female student achievement might occur.

So why are these results important? More than 90% elementary school teachers in the US are females. Similarly, women constitute the majority of elementary school teachers around most the world. Many teachers entrusted with the task of teaching math to young minds suffer from math anxiety.

Undoubtedly, apart from their current teachers’ anxieties, many other reasons, such as, parents, peers, and siblings who either do or do not model traditional academic gender roles may play an important part in shaping girls’ gender ability beliefs and their math achievement more generally. But considering that elementary school plays a major role in determining a child’s personality, the role of a teacher cannot be downplayed. Currently, even those with a propensity to avoid math can become an elementary school teacher.

Training and education can easily reduce math anxiety. If we expect the next generation of elementary school teachers to teach math effectively, more care needs to be taken to develop positive math attitudes in these educators.


Beilock SL, Gunderson EA, Ramirez G, & Levine SC (2010). Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (5), 1860-3 PMID: 20133834

Hyde JS, Lindberg SM, Linn MC, Ellis AB, & Williams CC (2008). Diversity. Gender similarities characterize math performance. Science (New York, N.Y.), 321 (5888), 494-5 PMID: 18653867

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  • Nelson Chamberlain

    My wife teaches 5th grade and really likes to teach math (the opposite of anxiety). It would be interesting to study the math grades of the girls who graduated from her class to see if they are any different from the typical math grades.

    It is also worth noting that while not every teacher may have math anxiety, almost all of them are mathathetic (apathetic towards math) and teach as little of it as they can. Most can only repeat the math pattern (e.g., invert and multiply) and have no idea why it works, nor can they offer an alternative method of performing an operation in hopes that the alternative will “click” with a child. Its a wonder our children don’t do worse at math. . .

    The really bad news is that most teachers over the age of 35 are technophobes and use technology as little as possible and will many times use one of their children to set up their computers or fix problems that inevitably arise. And their attitude towards science isn’t much better.

    Should it be a surprise that American childen perform so poorly in math and science?

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Divya Mathur, PhD

Divya Mathur, PhD, holds a doctorate in molecular biology with several peer reviewed journal articles. She currently writes about medical research for the lay audience.

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