Boys, not girls, benefit from unconscious bias in maths

College-educated mothers most likely to fail to spot their daughter’s maths ability

In its recent report on the Leaving Certificate results and the standardisation process undertaken, the State Examinations Commission highlights unconscious bias favouring female students. Our research on assessments of nine-year-olds' performances specifically in maths, provides evidence of gender bias, but operating in favour of boys, not girls.

Maths is a gender-marked subject, in that achievements in the area are seen as indicative of boys "natural" ability. Using data on 8,500 nine-year-old children from the Growing Up in Ireland study, our research shows that gender bias exists in teachers and mothers' perceptions, over-estimating the boys' performance and under-estimating the girls', taking into account their actual performance on nationally validated standardised maths tests.

As in many other countries, boys in Ireland show higher maths achievements and more positive attitudes to maths compared with girls. We found that girls’ maths performances, relative to boys’, is underestimated, particularly by mothers, but also by teachers.

Both rate boys more highly than girls at all levels of actual achievement. This is particularly pronounced among the high achievers. Mothers and teachers are 1.3 and 1.5 times respectively more likely to rate boys as “excellent” or “above average” in maths than girls. Perceptions are influenced by a range of factors, including children’s liking for maths, diligence at school and self-concept. But girls are still under-rated in maths relative to their academically similar male peers.


Gender bias is more evident among mothers than teachers, presumably because mothers have less day-to-day evidence of their children’s maths performance and less opportunity to compare their child with other children of the same age. Mothers, who provide the bulk of educational care work for their children, reproduce gendered stereotypes about maths, leading them to underestimate their daughters’ performances.


Mothers’ gender bias is particularly evident among daughters who are the highest achievers. It is highest among mothers with higher education. We suggest that gender stereotypes shape this overestimation of boys’ and the underestimation of girls’ maths performances.

Women can (inadvertently) perpetuate a system that devalues girls, by perpetuating such gendered stereotypes

We also find that female teachers are less likely than male teachers to rate nine-year-old children as “above average” in maths, suggesting that female teachers are more likely than male teachers to believe that mathematics is more difficult for girls than for equally achieving boys. Such bias may reflect their reluctance to identify excellence in maths, reflecting their own stereotypical lack of confidence as professional women making assessments in this area.

Mathematical ability is widely perceived as a marker of intelligence and is highly valued. This is reflected in the awarding of bonus points in this area on the Leaving Certificate exam. Girls are significantly less likely to take the higher-level course in maths and to be potentially eligible for these extra points.

The fact that as early as nine years old, high-achieving girls’ performances at maths is being underestimated by both mothers and teachers, and particularly female primary teachers illustrates the way in which women can (inadvertently) perpetuate a system that devalues girls, by perpetuating such gendered stereotypes.

These stereotypes will likely impact on girls’ subsequent performances in maths, as well as on how they feel about themselves as learners. Consequently, it will impact on their career choice and their opportunity to pursue highly valued Stem careers. Policy goals to increase the numbers of girls in Stem fields are likely to be ineffective, since girls will have learned that even if they excel in this area, their teachers and mothers will not necessarily see them as excelling.

The research also raises important questions about the conditions under which gender stereotypes are reinforced or challenged by schools

Girls may well feel that they are better off choosing areas that are more compatible with existing gender stereotypes, in the process perpetuating their position in lower paid and potentially less personally satisfying career positions.

This research is important in raising awareness about the often unconscious and “taken for granted” way in which stereotyping operates. Teacher education needs to play a greater role in challenging stereotypes and particularly in challenging the view that maths achievements reflect “natural” ability.


Given earlier research from the University of Limerick showing a large minority of second-level maths teachers not qualified in that field, incentivising entry to initial teacher maths education and supporting upskilling for existing teachers are also important. Female teachers should be encouraged to transcend their lack of confidence in assessing excellence in maths performance. Mothers should be encouraged to take seriously their daughter's performance on nationally validated tests. The fact that mothers with higher education are most likely to fail to appreciate their daughter's mathematical ability raises questions about the role of higher education in perpetuating such gendered stereotypes.

The research also raises important questions about the conditions under which gender stereotypes are reinforced or challenged by schools and the part played by teachers and mothers in perpetuating them. The evidence is important given the commission’s observations that girls’ performances more broadly in the Leaving Certificate, to some extent at least, reflect the existence of bias in favour of girls. In the case of nine-year-olds’ performances specifically in maths, the evidence is in the opposite direction.

Prof Selina McCoy (ESRI and Trinity College Dublin), Prof Delma Byrne (Maynooth University and Geary Institute of Public Policy, UCD) and Prof Pat O’Connor (University of Limerick and Geary Institute of Public Policy, UCD)