Many studies have found that being reminded of gender stereotypes can affect how one performs on an exam. For example, if girls are told that females are not as capable as males on math, they do more poorly on a math test than do girls who do not get that information.

A recent article investigated how gender stereotypes can also distort students’ memories of how they had previously done on an exam. Here is an excerpt of the findings:

An initial study with 73 high school students (34 boys) showed that those students who more strongly endorsed gender stereotypes in relation to maths and the arts, subsequently showed more biased recall of their past exam performance. That is, girls who endorsed the stereotypes underestimated their past maths performance, while boys who endorsed the stereotypes tended to underestimate their past arts performance.

A second study with 64 high school students gave some a highly salient reminder of gender stereotypes – that is, they rated their agreement with statements like “Men are gifted in mathematics” and “Women are gifted in the arts”, before rating their own abilities. Others were given what was considered a weaker reminder of gender stereotypes – they rated their own performance first, before evaluating men and women in general. Finally, all the students recalled their past exam performance.

Girls given a more salient reminder of gender stereotypes underestimated their actual past maths exam performance while boys in this condition overestimated their maths performance. No such difference was observed in the weak reminder condition. Regarding the arts, all students overestimated their performance, but among those given a salient reminder of stereotypes, the girls overestimated their arts performance more, and the boys far less.

The researchers said these findings could have real world implications: “It is possible that women are less likely to embrace scientific careers than men because gender stereotypes lead them to underestimate their past achievement.”

Chatard, A., Guimond, S. & Selimbegovic, L. (2007). “How good are you in math?” The effect of gender stereotypes on students’ recollection of their school marks. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 1017-1024.