Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: June 2012

9 - “Math is hard!” (Barbie™, 1994): Responses of Threat vs. Challenge-Mediated Arousal to Stereotypes Alleging Intellectual Inferiority


In 1994, Mattel created a Barbie™ doll that said, “Math is hard.” The Barbie Liberation Organization, a group composed of activists and media personalities, among others, protested against Barbie's perpetuation of gender-based stereotyping. The media publicized the case and discussions on gender stereotyping in children's toys ensued on and off the air, leading Mattel to withdraw the “math is hard” Barbie from the market.

However, did Barbie's frustration with math represent a reality in which girls and women, more than boys and men, find math to be hard? Benbow and Stanley (1980, 1983) found gender differences in performance on the mathematical section of the SAT (SAT-M) in boys and girls under the age of fourteen who were high in math achievement. The boys outperformed the girls by about half a standard deviation and were overrepresented by a ratio of 13:1 among students who scored above 700. Similarly, in a meta-analysis involving over three million participants, Hyde, Fennema, and Lamon (1990) found a gender difference favoring males that emerged from high school (d = 0.29) through college (d = 0.41), and into adulthood (d = 0.59). Finally, Brown and Josephs (1999) reported that the two most widely used standardized tests of mathematics in the United States, the SAT-M and the quantitative portion of the GRE (GRE-Q), revealed a gender difference in the order of half a standard deviation.

This gender difference can also be seen in the types of activities that females vs. males tend to pursue.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 113–125
Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can't do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 29–46
Aronson, J., Quinn, D. M., & Spencer, S. J. (1998). Stereotype threat and the academic underperformance of minorities and women. In J. K. Swim & C. Stangor (Eds.), Prejudice: The target's perspective (pp. 83–103). San Diego, CA: Academic Press
Aronson, J., & Salinas, M. F. (1997). Stereotype threat, attributional ambiguity, and Latino underperformance. Unpublished manuscript, University of Texas
Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 71, 230–244
Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator-mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: Conceptual, strategic and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1173–1182
Baumeister, R. F., & Showers, C. J. (1986). A review of paradoxical performance effects: Choking under pressure in sports and mental tests. European Journal of Social Psychology, 16, 361–383
Benbow, C. P., Lubinski, D., Shea, D. L., & Eftekhari-Sanjani, H. (2000). Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability at age 13: Their status 20 years later. Psychological Science, 11, 474–479
Benbow, C. P., & Stanley, J. C. (1980). Sex differences in mathematical ability: Fact or artifact? Science, 210, 1262–1264
Benbow, C. P., & Stanley, J. C. (1983). Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability: More facts. Science, 222, 1029–1031
Ben-Zeev, T., Fein, S., & Inzlicht, M. (in press). Arousal and stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Blascovich, J., Spencer, S. J., Quinn, D., & Steele, C. (2001). African Americans and high blood pressure: The role of stereotype threat. Psychological Science, 12, 225–229
Brown, R. P., & Josephs, R. A. (1999). Stereotype relevance and gender differences in math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 246–257
Croizet, J. C., & Claire, T. (1998). Extending the concept of stereotype threat to social class: The intellectual underperformance of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 588–594
Dienstbier, R. A. (1989). Arousal and physiological toughness: Implications for mental and physical health. Psychological Review, 96, 84–100
Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-Theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press
Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256–273
Eccles, J. S., & Jacobs, J. E. (1987). In M. R. Walsh (Ed.), The Psychology of Women (question 10, pp. 333–354). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. (1986). Stress process and depressive symptomatology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 107–113
Geary, D. C. (1996). Sexual selection and sex differences in mathematical abilities. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 19, 229–284
Hong, Y., Chiu, C., & Dweck, C. S. (1999). Implicit theories, attributions, and coping: A meaning system approach. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 77, 588–599
Hyde, J. S., Fennema, E., & Lamon, S. J. (1990). Gender differences in mathematics performance: A meta analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 107, 139–155
Inzlicht, M. (2001). Threatening intellectual environments: When and why females perform worse in the presence of males. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Brown University
Inzlicht, M., & Ben-Zeev, T. (2000). A threatening intellectual environment: Why females are susceptible to experiencing problem-solving deficits in the presence of males. Psychological Science, 11, 365–371
Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
Kray, L. J., Thompson, L., & Galinsky, A. (2001). Battle of the sexes: Gender stereotype confirmation and reactance in negotiations. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 80, 942–958
Leyens, J. P., Desert, M., Croizet, J. C., & Darcis, C. (2000). Stereotype threat: Are lower status and history of stigmatization preconditions of stereotype threat? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1189–1199
Lupien, S. J., & McEwen, B. S. (1997). The acute effects of corticosteroids on cognition: Integration of animal and human model studies. Brain Research Reviews, 24, 1–27
Marx, D. M., Brown, J. L., & Steele, C. M. (1999). Allport's legacy and the situational press of stereotypes. Journal of Social Issues, 55, 491–502
O'Brien, L. T., & Crandall, C. S. (2001). Stereotype threat and arousal: Effects on women's math performance. Manuscript submitted for publication
Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (1983). Determinants of reduction in effort as a strategy for coping with anticipated failure. Journal of Research in Personality, 17, 412–422
Ruvolo, A. P., & Markus, H. R. (1992). Possible selves and performance: The power of self-relevant imagery. Social Cognition, 10, 95–124
Schmitt, B. H., Gilovitch, T., Goore, N., & Joseph, L. (1986). Mere presence and social facilitation: One more time. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 22, 242–248
Schoenfeld, A. H. (1983). Beyond the purely cognitive: Belief systems, social cognitions, and metacognitions as driving forces in intellectual performance. Cognitive Science, 7, 329–363
Shiffrin, R. M., & Schneider, W. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: I. Detection, search, and attention. Psychological Review, 84, 1–66
Shih, M., Pittinsky, T. L., & Ambady, N. (1999). Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science, 10, 80–83
Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. (1999). Stereotype threat and women's math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4–28
Stangor, C., Carr, C., & Kiang, L. (1998). Activating stereotypes undermines task performance expectations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1191–1197
Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613–629
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797–811
Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Lynch, M. (1993). Self-image resilience and dissonance: The role of affirmational resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 885–896
Stone, J., Lynch, C. I., Sjomeling, M., & Darley, J. M. (1999). Stereotype threat effects on Black and White athletic performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1213–1227
Ursin, H., Baade, E., & Levine, S. (Eds.). (1978). Psychobiology of stress: A study of coping men. New York: Academic Press
Walsh, M., Hickey, C., & Duffy, J. (1999). Influence of item content and stereotype situation on gender differences in mathematical problem solving. Sex Roles, 41, 219–240
Wheeler, S. C., & Petty, R. E. (2001). The effects of stereotype activation on behavior: A review of possible mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 797–826
Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relationship of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology of Psychology, 18, 459–482
Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269–274