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  • 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.

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