The gender gap in mathematics is also the fault of multiplechoice tests

, by Andrea Celauro
If prejudices about women in STEM subjects die hard, the way exams are created can also have an impact. Silvia Griselda, a postdoctoral researcher at the AXA Research Lab on Gender Equality, explains

STEM-oriented boys, humanities-oriented girls. A hard-to-die cliché which survives for reasons beyond existing cultural barriers in schools and families. Silvia Griselda, post-doc researcher at the AXA Research Lab on Gender Equality at Bocconi University, in her research work shows how the perpetuation of prejudice and bias can also derive from the way exams are conceived.

An example of this is her job market paper "The Gender Gap in Math: What Are We Measuring?", where she analyzes data on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test scores of high school students from 65 countries around the world. The intrinsic characteristic of this exam, the way it is structured (different tests for each student), is the high percentage of multiple-choice questions. Silvia Griselda's analysis shows that this type of exams favors a better performance for boys in STEM subjects and girls in the humanities and, as the weight of multiple answers increases, the performance gap also tends to widen. "This happens", explains Griselda, "because compared to a dry, direct answer, multiple choice offers different answer options, some of them incorrect, which tend to distract the more insecure students (information overload). It follows that those who have greater confidence in their skills about the subject tend to respond better, therefore boys in STEM subjects and girls in the humanities".

And here, then, we return to the topic of prejudice: growing up in an environment that promotes the idea that girls are not strong in science undermines their self-confidence with regard to their scientific knowledge. Consequently, in addition to promoting the presence of female role models in the scientific field, according to Silvia Griselda there are two steps that need to be taken: "On the one hand, undermining the stereotypes that are perpetuated in the family and at school, in orde to encourage confidence in girls' own skills. On the other hand, since multiple-choice tests are increasingly used, train girls and boys on this type of knowledge assessment, so that the impact of information overload is lessened".