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Gendered beliefs about mathematics ability transmit across generations through children’s peers

Abstract

In many societies, beliefs about differential intellectual ability by gender persist across generations. These societal beliefs can contribute to individual belief formation and thus lead to persistent gender inequality across multiple dimensions. We show evidence of intergenerational transmission of gender norms through peers and how this affects gender gaps in learning. We use nationally representative data from China and the random assignment of children to middle-school classrooms to estimate the effect of being assigned a peer group with a high proportion of parents who believe that boys are innately better than girls at learning mathematics. We find this increases a child’s likelihood of holding the belief, with greater effects from peers of the same gender. It also affects the child’s demonstrated mathematics ability, generating gains for boys and losses for girls. Our findings highlight how the informational environment in which children grow up can shape their beliefs and academic ability.

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Fig. 1: Mapping of exposure to peers whose parents believe that Bm > Gm onto child beliefs.
Fig. 2: Mapping of exposure to peers whose parents believe that Bm > Gm onto test scores.

Data availability

Our data are publicly available at the CEPS website, hosted by Renmin University of China, from which we accessed them: http://ceps.ruc.edu.cn/English/Overview/Overview.htm. This repository contains the entire ‘minimum dataset’ necessary to interpret, verify and extend the research in the article.

Code availability

Custom code that supports the findings of this study is available on the GitHub public repository at https://github.com/alexeble/NHBGenderedbeliefs2022/.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to seminar audiences at Columbia, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Northeastern Universities Development Consortium, Northwestern, Queens College, Rutgers, Texas A&M and UT Austin. We are also grateful to M. Angelucci, P. Bergman, P. Blair, B. Cheble, S. Cohodes, J. Das, J. Doleac, A. Estefan, M. Hoekstra, W. Huang, J. Keller, L. Linden, J. Lindo, R. Lumsdaine, J. Matsudaira, J. Meer, K. Pop-Eleches, R. Reback, J. Rockoff, J. Scott-Clayton, M. Urquiola and T. Vogl for helpful comments. This paper replaces and updates the results previously circulated as a working paper under the titles: ‘How important are beliefs about gender differences in math ability? Transmission across generations and impacts on child outcomes’ and ‘The sins of the parents: persistence of gender bias across generations and the gender gap in math performance’. We acknowledge the following sources of support: The Humanities and Social Science Fund of Ministry of Education of China (grant no. 19YJA790029) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant no. 71373002) to F.H.; National Academy of Education and Spencer Foundation via an NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship (no grant number) to A.E. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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A.E. and F.H. contributed equally to all stages of the research and to preparation of the manuscript and are listed alphabetically.

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Correspondence to Alex Eble or Feng Hu.

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Eble, A., Hu, F. Gendered beliefs about mathematics ability transmit across generations through children’s peers. Nat Hum Behav 6, 868–879 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01331-9

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