Math & Girls

It’s sad that it is 2011 and we are still discussing gender differences and gender stereotypes in math and science performance in America.  It doesn’t help when the President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, makes comments that there are innate differences between men and woman that result in fewer women succeeding in math and science careers (Bombardieri, 2005).  The good news is that research evidence doesn’t support Summers’ theory, the bad news is that many students still believe that boys are better at math and science.

In response to Summers’ statement a few years ago, professors at Stanford got together to discuss gender in math, science, and engineering.  According to Jo Boelar, an associate professor of mathematics education at the School of Education at Stanford, “There is a huge belief that boys are better at math which is vastly out of proportion to any data that we have.  And yet people believe it. You go into schools and the children will tell you that.” (Johnston, 2005).

A recent article in the Journal of Child Development by Cvencek, Meltzoff, and Greenwald (2001) provides further evidence that even 6 years later, this vision that boys are better than girls at math than girls still exists- even with elementary school-aged children.  A fascinating study that examined both implicit and explicit attitudes about gender stereotypes and math (e.g., “that math is for boys”) found that children ages 6-10 years old believe “math is for boys” and that boys are more likely to identify with math than girls are.  These stereotypes appear even in the youngest children tested.

What’s really interesting about this study is that unlike most other research that has relied on explicit self-report measures (asking children or adults how “good they are” at math, etc), this study used BOTH explicit self-report measures and an implicit association task to examine children’s attitudes toward math.  When thinking about research with young children you have to consider how the child is interpreting and understanding the question that is being asked.  There are some limitations to asking children how “good they are” or “how much they like” anything.  For example, asking these types of questions may be a better measure of self esteem than actual performance, a child may say, “I’m great at math” because she thinks she is very good at everything (measuring self-esteem more than actual ability).

The authors of this study adapted an implicit association task to examine how children viewed gender stereotypes related to math implicitly (meaning without directly asking the children about their attitudes about this topic).  How did they do this?    Children played a computer game where they were given target words one at a time (e.g., story, Emily, graph, David, numbers, Hannah) and were instructed to categorize them as fitting into one of two categories.  Children played this came when the categories were stereotype congruent meaning that they paired “boy” and “math” together in one category and “girl” and “reading” together in another.   The then saw and heard the target words, for example “number”, and had to indicate using an keyboard whether it fit in the “boy/math” category or the “girl/reading” category.  Children also played a version when the categories were stereotype incongruent meaning they paired “boy” and “reading” together in one category and “girl” and “math” together in another.   They then measured the association with math terms and the child’s own gender compared to the opposite gender.

Findings from this study indicate that children demonstrate both implicit and explicit gender stereotypes at very young ages, even before any performance differences begin to appear related to math.  Given these types of findings, it is important that as parents and teachers we work to minimize these gender stereotypes related to performance in any academic field!

Ways to encourage your children to excel in all academic fields, regardless of gender:

  • Meet New People & Learn about Careers.  Take your children to places where people don’t fit into gender stereotype roles.  For example, when you take your child to the doctor’s and there is a male nurse, ask why he became a nurse and what he likes about his job.  Likely he will say that he was interested in helping others or learning about medicine, explain to your child what types of classes and skills he had to learn to become a nurse.  Similarly, when you see a woman working at the Science Museum, don’t just ask about the display that she is showing, if she has time, ask her to explain to your children how she decided to become a scientist.
  • Be Positive. Encourage your child to practice and study all of the subjects.  Avoid statements that “math is hard” or “I’m not good at math either”.  Instead provide positive statements like, “doesn’t it feel great to get the answer right?”
  • Always Do the Best You Can  Remember that not everything is going to come easily to every child and kids get frustrated when they don’t understand.  Not every little girl is going to be a math whizz and not every little boy is going to become a literary genius- but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have to try and they should always strive to do the best they can!  (The same goes for the parents- even if you hated math growing up, keep your negative comments to yourself and work do to the best you can too!)
  • Books about Careers and Academic Success.  Find books at the library that provide models of women and men in non-traditional women’s roles and vice versa and talk about how anyone can be anything they want to be.
As much as this is still something that people think about and discuss there is hope that gender stereotypes related to academic success will continue to decline.  Just last year more woman than men earned PhD’s (de Vise, 2005)!
Cvencek, D. Meltzoff, A. N., & Greenwald, A. G. (2011).  Math-gender stereotypes in elementary school children.  Journal of Child Development, 82, 766-779.
Bombardieri, M. (Jan 17, 2005).  Summers’ remarks on women draw fire.  Boston Globe
de Vise, D.  (Sept 14, 2010).  More women than men got PhDs last year.  Washington Post
Johnston, T.   (Feb 8, 2005).  In wake of Harvard president’s comments, Stanford professors discuss gender in math, science and engineering education.  Stanford News Service: News Release.


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