Assessing and Improving Girls' and Women's Math Identity (2021-2022)


The gender gap in STEM fields exists at all levels, from childhood through career selection, and there are many different, but often related, causes for female underrepresentation. Two major causes of the gender gap are a significant disparity between men and women in their spatial reasoning skills and students’ math identity, represented by their beliefs, attitudes and emotions about math and STEM.

Spatial ability in students contributes both to their likelihood to choose STEM occupations and their actual development of skills in STEM-related coursework. Research shows that while men’s performance on spatial reasoning assessments is stronger than women’s, these skills are easily developed through training. This training has a lasting effect on spatial skills and positively affects performance on spatial tasks not explicitly addressed in training activities.

Project Description 

This project aims to address two major causes of the gender gap in STEM by planning and running a series of free workshops for middle school girls in Durham, designed to improve their math identity. Additionally, the project aims to assess current beliefs among girls and women as they pertain to stereotypes, self-assessment and other issues related to gender and STEM.

Workshop activities will encourage the young students to solve rich, accessible problems using multiple approaches. Participants will not be selected based on academic achievement, and problems will be approachable to all students, with extensions for advanced students. The curriculum will also include age-appropriate discussions about gender stereotypes and their impact, particularly in math performance and spatial reasoning, to build an awareness about growth mindset and stereotype threat.

All workshop activities will be led by female-identified undergraduate students, who will serve as positive examples of women engaging in math. Workshops will be held on Saturdays during the academic school year, and a free daytime workshop will run during the summer. The middle school students will also have the opportunity to engage with the program by participating online.

The team will analyze survey data, collected during previous years of this project, assessing middle school girls’ math identity beliefs and attitudes. This analysis will inform future workshop curricula and provide baseline data about the young students’ beliefs, and the team will expand the research to assess beliefs among STEM women. Team members will create survey instruments using validated training and assessment materials and will improve on the existing middle school student surveys.

A priority will be to better connect the math material from the workshops with the math topics covered in the middle school classroom. Middle school participants will be challenged to reflect on their persistence and strategies in workshops, with the goal of applying these approaches to the schoolwork they find difficult.

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Data measuring changes in math self-efficacy and gender/STEM beliefs; data about STEM women’s beliefs; data for use in grant proposals; applet to improve girls’ spatial reasoning and resilience; website with resources for parents about gender and STEM

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 2 graduate students and 10 undergraduate students from a diverse set of majors and career interests, including math, STEM fields, education, psychology and gender studies. Students should be professional and approachable around middle school girls and be comfortable connecting personally with various topics in STEM and gender. All participants are expected to lead math-centered discussions, especially as the program emphasizes understanding and pursuing multiple approaches and points of access for any given problem.

Participating students will be interacting directly with workshop participants, gaining experience working in an education setting. Students will also develop leadership skills as well as research skills in the context of program assessment and survey instrumentation. Because the program incorporates discussion and study of a diverse range of topics, participants at all learner levels will gain a deeper understanding of an area that is new to them as well as an increased awareness of the complexity of the issue of the gender gap in STEM fields. Students will be included in associated publications.

In Fall 2021, the team will meet on Thursdays from 3:30-4:45 p.m.

In the optional work during Summer 2022, students will be assigned to facilitate the workshops with middle school girls and analyze data collected during the previous semester.


Fall 2021 – Summer 2022 

  • Fall 2021: Workshopping of survey instruments; IRB protocol updates for surveys of GEM participants, middle school students and female STEM practitioners; training (including research and discussion) for undergraduate student participants; administrative planning of workshops; review of outcomes from previous project year; social media outreach to engage with Durham parents and students; advertising of workshops
  • Spring 2022: Saturday workshops with regular discussions about challenges, successes and short- and long-term improvements; survey 
  • Summer 2022 (optional): Summer workshops; data collection and analysis


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, Improving Girls’ Math Identity through Problem-solving and Mentorship (2020-2021).


Image courtesy of 2019-2020 project team

Math identity.

Team Leaders

  • Victoria Akin, Arts & Sciences-Mathematics
  • Suzanne Crifo, Academic Resource Center
  • Sophia Santillan, Pratt School of Engineering-Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Martha Putallaz, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Christina L. Williams, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Elizabeth Moffitt, Durham Public Schools
  • Lauren Valentino, The Ohio State University