Twenty Reasons Why Girls Don’t Like Math

March 29th, 2010

It’s a fact : girls are just as good at math as the elementary, secondary, and high school level boys. Yet female college students stray away from mathematics, with less than 36% of mathematics PhDs awarded to female grads. Research suggests that this gap between the genders may not have anything to do with the left- and right-brain theories we’re accustomed to hearing; instead, the cause is rooted in sociological phenomena. These twenty research projects, case studies, and examples show that women are just as capable in mathematics as their counterparts, deterred only by fear factor and the stigma surrounding math- and science-inclined professions.

1: Girls learn math anxiety from female teachers. A study conducted by Sian L. Beilock, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago, suggests that female teachers anxious about their math skills pass on their anxieties to their female students. The more the teacher lacked confidence in her math skills, the more the female students adapted her insecure mentality.

2: Girls lack the confidence. Math fear has reared its ugly head in so many generations of women, it’s no wonder female teachers are passing on anxiety to the American leaders of tomorrow; international research  says that while mathematic confidence is instilled in men, women are neglected of this booster a worldwide scale. Projects designed to increase the confidence of female high school students have shown a tremendous impact on the balancing of math love in both sexes.

3: Toddler boys tinker and toy, while toddler girls are handed dolls. While this has steadily declined over the years, we still face a generation of young learners that believed Lincoln Logs, Legos, racing cars, and simple machines are the tinkering toys for boys, and dolls and coloring books are the artistic toys for girls. Research on the sociological differences in raising young girls and boys suggests that we hand toys to boys that get them revved for math lessons right from the start, while young girls enter the classroom without this upper hand.

4: Barbie says, “Math is hard.” In 1992, Mattel released Teen Talk Barbie , a Barbie doll that said, “Math is hard.” With toys reinforcing this mentality in young girls, what other results could we sociologically expect? Thankfully, the Barbie Liberation Organization tinkered with the circuit boards of Barbie dolls and GI Joe dolls—oh, right, “action figures”—so that Barbie cried, “Vengeance is mine!” and GI Joe said, “Let’s plan our dream wedding.” This message spoke loud and clear to toy producers all over the world.

5: The mathematic gap is parallel to the socioeconomic and educational gap. When looking at research projects on an international level, psychologists find that the gap in mathematic knowledge between men and women is strikingly parallel to the gap in socioeconomic success and educational attainment. That is to say, the more we sociologically treat women and men as the same professionally, educationally, and intellectually, the more women measure up to men in the mathematics department. Or maybe it’s the other way around?

6: Girls learn math hate from mom. Mothers of daughters write about how their hatred for mathematics passes on to their children. If female students already have to face anxious teachers and come home to parents just as skeptical about math homework, children will naturally veer away from studying mathematics. Then there are parents that instill a love of math in their daughters so that they “grow up believing they can do anything boys can do [and] run circles around them, even on the football field; it doesn’t matter.”

7: Mathematics is lacking real world application. According to the television broadcast “Why Girls Don’t Like Math,” girls do not pursue mathematics in college and beyond because math is not “relevant.” When sitting in a trigonometry class, it’s easy to start considering whether it applies to the “real world.” Research claims that eight out of ten future jobs will require mathematics skills though, so this could be a choke at the throat in future professional careers.

8: Math needs a new edge. One research project claims that we simply teach math wrong. Jennifer Weller, geology professor at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, found that mathematics is grounded in theory rather than practical use—the “relevancy” problem—and that the number one reason for college dropouts, at a staggering 40%, is “failing a mathematics course.” With this kind of issue interlaced at the heart of mathematics, it’s no wonder female students shy away from mathematics in higher education.

9: Mathematics disenchants young girls. I like Wired. Some of the best technological articles come from them, and a large part of this is that they’re not afraid to tell it the way it is. Whether we like it or not, we still raise our young girls different than our young boys: Disney movies about princesses; fairy tales about knights in shining armor; dressing them up in glitter-entrenched clothes. Then the elementary female learner enters school, overwhelmed by her vivid imagination, and mathematics kills her love for fantasy on impact. If there’s one way we can figure out how to teach mathematics better, it’s by making it not so “disenchanting.” (Oh, and by handing her a Tonka truck when she’s little.)

10: Geeky environments discourage girls. That’s right; there’s research interlinking sociological and environmental psychological factors together on the math hate dilemma. Sapna Cheryan, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Washington, claims that the environment created by “geeky” males—we’re talking video games, science fiction memorabilia, and junk food—discourages women from mathematics and science. Women take one look at the environment created by people “that love math” and decide it’s not the thing for them. PhysOrg describes it as, “In real estate, its location, location, location…women shy away from computer science [because of] environment, environment, environment.”

11: Mathematics needs to integrate more into movies. We’re an impressionable species and movies definitely are part of that impact. Look at how cigarettes are under never-ending scrutiny over whether they are teen appropriate in the theatres. Yet the positive forces of the universe—like mathematics—hardly pop up in the latest high school romantic comedy. The world is not without hope, though; an example of mathematics looking positive to female students is found in Mean Girls, with the famous scene where Damian reads, “Health, Spanish…you’re taking Calculus?” and Cady replies, “Yeah, I like math…it’s the same in every country.”

12: Girls are pushed away from technology. Mathematics is not a stand-alone giant. Part of the hoo-hah of the mathematics and girls debate is that this fear is putting a ceiling on a woman’s ability to have a lucrative career as an XYZ engineer. Yet even after the evidence comes in that girls can handle mathematics just as well as boys, these female students are claiming that their parents, relatives, teachers, school faculty, etcetera, are pushing them away from science, engineering, and computers to “more appropriate” careers. Closing the doors on mathematic success is starving financial equality between the sexes.

13: If boys have to be bad about something, so do girls. The stereotype that girls hate math has another side: boys hate reading. Unraveling one knot requires unraveling the other, especially if we’re driving towards equality. Research shows boys can read just as much as girls can equate though, so this is just a matter of dispelling another sociological myth.

14: Girls don’t realize the mathematic skills inherent in their daily lives. Author Abigail James points out how skilled a girl may be at measuring cooking ingredients by eye, purchasing a couch they know will fit perfectly in that living room nook, or keeping track of a busy schedule by the five-minute marker. While boys are keenly aware of the mathematics in their everyday lives, girls often overlook their arithmetic, space-oriented, and scientific skills because of the general mentality that “boys are better at understanding math and space.”

15: The “girls learn differently” research isn’t applied correctly. Let’s backtrack to that left-brain / right-brain topic. Over many decades of scientific study, we’ve verified that girls and boys don’t learn the same way. This is supported steadfastly in college-level human development and psychology classes around the world; we’re dealing with true stuff here. The problem is, the research is easily misinterpreted as “girls are bad at math,” and female learners are thrown to the sidelines. If you look at it from the appropriate angle though, as Nerd Girls explains, you see that the research says girls learn differently, not inferiorly; that is, they take unique approaches to understanding math, and schools that implement this into the curriculum see widespread success.

16: Schools need fun activities for mathematics. Girls are attracted to social gatherings; its part of the sociological and psychological nature instilled in the gender. Yet math clubs for girls are only recently cropping up for female learners, encouraging a subject that is typically overshadowed by the great creative giants in high school forward. More “math is fun” school opportunities will open the doors to females in engineering, science, and other technical occupations. Here’s another example of successful engineering programs in schools for girls.

17: Harvard’s Math 55. When I first encountered this, I said, “Wait, what?” Harvard apparently has a famous, nationally-acclaimed Math 55 course that attracts technical students from all over the world. And the class spells out the mathematic dilemma loud and clear: “45% Jewish, 18% Asian, 100% male.” Not an accurate sampling of American culture. Read more about its impact on how we approach mathematics as a culture.

18: Parents need to encourage girls to work hard, too. Nothing’s preventing female students from studying math… except parents. A recent study conducted at a math camp for girls suggests that mathematical success lies in parents that encourage their daughters to work hard. We’re not just talking threatening doom if girls don’t get the A-grades; in fact, there are all kinds of research studies that show the negative impact of “nothing short of an A is acceptable” mentality. These “work hard” students are defined by daughters with parents that purchase workbooks to [re-]learn the mathematics with them, and dedicate time on the weekends to mathematical success.

19: Nerds have to take over the main stream. An interesting sociological change in occurring as technology infiltrates our schools: nerds are in. Check out Revenge of the Nerdette, where mathematic-inclined female students build a solar power car. The more this becomes the norm in our society, the more we’ll see equality between men and women, mathematically and socioeconomically.

20: Women opt out of mathematics and science to have children. Stephen J. Ceci, professor of human development at Cornell, makes a valid argument about how child birth and rearing occurs dead in the middle of critical points in a woman’s career—working long hours for a promotion, trying to get tenure, etcetera—and this could deter women from pursuing math- and science-based careers.

The next time you think that girls can’t handle the engineering ropes, think again; mathematics is a reality for both genders, given the right sociological, psychological, and developmental factors. (Translate: when girls have building blocks in diapers.) Researchers, educational experts, parents, and students agree that math-phobia is a beast of the past, fully capable of being overcome by today’s knowledgeable and increasingly equalizing society. As we change our perception on learning and girls and boys, we will see the mathematical skills of our young daughters and female graduates soar to new and exciting heights.

comments2 Responses to “Twenty Reasons Why Girls Don’t Like Math”

  • Kiley Flach says:

    Hi there could I use some of the material from this blog if I link back to you?

  • LaToniya A Jones says:

    Great list! I hope that everyone is taking note that we must do something to empower and support girls. Math is a part of their daily lives yet those closest to them often fail to highlight this fact–because they don’t recognize it themselves.

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