Gender Stereotyping in Parents’ and Teachers’ Perceptions of Boys’ and Girls’ Mathematics Performance in Ireland (Geary Institute, University College Dublin)


  • Selina McCoy (Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin and Trinity College Dublin)
  • Delma Byrne (National University of Ireland Maynooth and Geary Institute, University College Dublin)
  • Pat O’Connor (University of Limerick and Geary Institute, University College Dublin)


This paper is concerned with the underlying question of what shapes the assessment of children’s mathematical ability: focusing particularly on parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of that ability in the context of children’s attainment (measured using standardised mathematics tests). We suggest that such perceptions may reflect the impact of gender stereotypes: overestimating boys’ and underestimating girls’ achievements in the area. The influence of the children’s own interests, attitudes and behaviour on these gender stereotypical perceptions are also explored. The paper draws on the Growing Up in Ireland study, providing rich data on children, their families and school contexts. The results show that as early as nine years old, girls’ performance at mathematics is being underestimated by teachers and primary care givers alike relative to boys’. While teacher (and parent) judgments reflect children’s attitudes towards school and academic self-concept, as well as their actual performance, there remains a notable gender differential in judgements. The findings raise concerns for girls’ subsequent mathematics performance and for their academic self-concept in a society where mathematics is highly valued as an indicator of intelligence. Importantly, in the context of the move towards teacher-assessed grading in many education systems during the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding, and challenging, gender-stereotyping by both parents and teachers becomes critically important.

Key words

Gender stereotypes, mathematics, teacher perception, parent perception, academic self-concept, academic performance, attainment, STEM

Suggested Citation

Selina McCoy & Delma Byrne & Pat O Connor, 2020. “Gender Stereotyping in Parents’ and Teachers’ Perceptions of Boys’ and Girls’ Mathematics Performance in Ireland,” Working Papers 202010, Geary Institute, University College Dublin.


This work focuses on the elements that shape assessments of children’s ability in mathematics. The research looks in particular at parents’ and teachers’ perception of that ability in the context of children’s actual attainment when measured using standardised mathematics tests. The authors suggest that perceptions of ability reflect gendered stereotypes: overestimating boys’ abilities and underestimating that of girls. The paper looks at a cohort of children aged 9.

This study also examines the influence of the children’s own interests, attitudes and behaviour, particularly their academic ‘self-concept’, on parents’ and teachers’ perceptions. It explores the extent to which parents and teachers respond to children’s own beliefs about their abilities in mathematics and the implications for the expectations and confidence of boys and girls. The analysis considers the extent to which perceptions are affected by the child’s motivation and engagement with school in general and mathematics in particular.

The authors cite evidence showing growing gender disparities from primary to secondary to postsecondary school. Previous research suggests that teachers at secondary level were more likely to believe mathematics requires innate ability compared with teachers of primary years students. The evidence also suggests that more experienced teachers and teachers who worked with students with additional needs seemed to believe less in the role of hard work in success in mathematics.

The data for this work is drawn from the first wave of the Growing Up in Ireland child cohort study – the National Longitudinal Study of Children in Ireland, a nationally representative study. This article draws on interview data collected on 8,578 nine-year-old children (representing one-in-seven nine-year-old children) and their parents and their teachers.

The study reveals important differences in ratings of boys’ and girls’ mathematics performance, with strong evidence that both teachers and primary care givers over-estimate boys’ performance. There is a strong reluctance for parents to rate high performing daughters as excellent.

Girls are systematically less likely to be rated ‘excellent’ than boys, even taking account of their actual performance levels. The gap is largest at higher levels of mathematics attainment. The perceived gap between boys and girls at the highest level is much wider in the case of parents than in the case of the teacher.

Teachers are significantly less likely to rate girls as ‘above average’ than boys, even taking account of their actual performance in robust mathematics tests. Parents’ and teachers’ views of a child’s ability in maths are not only shaped by that child’s actual achievement. Girls are underrated in mathematics relative to boys of similar abilities.

Stereotypes about boys being excellent/above average in mathematics persist among both teachers and parents (mainly mothers). These stereotypes are so strong that they override the evidence of the girls and boys’ own achievements in nationally validated mathematics assessments. Thus girls, even where their performance on these tests is objectively excellent, are not perceived as such.

These stereotypes may impact on career choice, since mathematics is seen as central to pursuing highly valued careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). In this context the frequent calls for girls to consider STEM careers are unlikely to be ineffective: girls from as young as nine years old will have learned that even if they excel in this area, their teachers and parents will not perceive them as excelling. The authors speculate that girls may thus feel that they are better off choosing careers which are more compatible with existing gender stereotypes: thus, in many cases perpetuating their position in lower paid and less personally satisfying career positions.


Read the full paper.