Photo from Zara Kids
It is a well-known fact that boys are better than girls in math. Or is it? The common belief that “girls are writers and boys are calculators” has been circulating around for years. In fact, I have been guilty of falling into that category: I can write an essay in a minute, but give me an algebraic equation and I’m working and reworking the problem trying to come up with a solution. I struggled with math from middle school through college, continually saying “I hate math.” I believed my math abilities to be subpar, just as most Americans are under the assumption that boys always outperform girls in math. However, studies have shown that this stereotype is just that: a stereotype.
First, consider the testing measures. When math skills are analyzed between genders, several factors must be considered. First, gender equality in testing locations makes a difference in results. If a country does not consider females equal to their male counterparts, then their education and testing results will be inferior. Also, if female students are not intended to continue their education into college, the likelihood of solid math skills and careers in math are greatly reduced.
Next, consider societal expectations. Despite girls being exemplar students, society still thinks of them as bad at math…and they often take on that way of thinking. If “girls are writers and boys are calculators” is constantly circulated as truth, girls will tend to believe it. In a 2008 study, employers showed immense bias against female candidates applying for math related positions. Both male and female employers chose male candidates over female candidates. The power of perception is inevitably skewing the data of who is placed in math related careers, further perpetuating girl’s “shortcomings” in math.
Last, consider the data. A study done by researchers of University of New Brunswick analyzed student data from almost one hundred years of academic performances. The study suggests that female students outperform male students in every subject: reading, writing, math and science. What was the difference in this study? Scientists analyzed grades and grade point averages instead of standardized test scores. Standardized testing does indeed test knowledge, but it also tests how a student handles (testing) anxiety and test taking skills. Other research suggests that girls tend to focus on mastering material, a commonly graded skill in school work. Boys, on the other hand, tend to put worth on getting the right answer, resulting in good test taking performance.
How can we combat this stereotype? I believe this is a difficult topic as a parent. On one hand, math can be challenging to students, regardless of gender. Do you over praise your daughter for getting a 100 on her math test? Do you get your daughter a tutor because she got a B in math? I believe the first step is the power of a positive attitude. Praise your daughter, whether she receives a 100 or a 70. Don’t give them an excuse like “It’s okay to be good at writing and okay in math”. Reverse the cycle! Try encouraging them as all around students by saying things like “You have worked so hard, and I know your hard work will pay off. Keep studying!” Being mindful of our own projection of the stereotype will instill a confidence in our girls to excel in math, as well as other areas. Watch what you say about yourself in front of your children, whether you have sons, daughters or both. They will hear you say things like “I’m not good at math” after making a mathematical mistake. Hearing their mom, the person that their world revolves around, put themselves down will not help reverse the girls and math stereotype.
Earlier I mentioned my thoughts about my own math skills. So I’ll start reversing the stereotype with me. I may not enjoy math, but I can figure out equations when I take my time and think things through. Join me in reversing the stereotype into a new way of thinking: Girls are great students.
Have questions about STEM education? Check out our article about it.