Girls and The Math Stigma

By Katie Ash — October 22, 2008 1 min read
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Last night after work, I still had Sean Cavanagh’s Education Week story about how American culture discourages girls from cultivating high-level math skills up on my computer screen when my roommates—who are, notably, both women—came in to check their e-mail and catch me up on the day’s events. As my first roommate began to log on to her account, she read the headline of Sean’s story (American Culture Seen to Thwart Girls’ Math Development) and to my surprise exclaimed, “That’s so true!” which sparked a long discussion about their associations with math and gender.

Although I’ve read numerous studies about the link between girls’ achievement in math and a stigma against it, I had never really felt that pressure in my own experience as a student. Math was always my weakest subject, but it never occurred to me to attribute my struggles with it to my gender. However, both of my roommates—one of whom attended an all-girls Catholic school and the other who was educated in the public school system—had stories about feeling like math was a subject that boys, not girls, studied and excelled in.

“Girls are better at art, boys are better at math,” one of them said, recalling her feelings about it as a child, even though her older sister loved math and ultimately went on to become an engineer. “My teachers always told me I wasn’t very good at it,” the other said.

Although their stories took me a bit by surprise, they obviously aren’t alone in their experiences. As the article says, a new study (PDF) shows that other countries are much better at encouraging girls to pursue math studies than the United States. Girls are held back in math by the societal stereotypes, experts say. Those negative stereotypes have a devastating effect on girls’ motivation to study math, but on the flip side, having a supportive system of teachers and mentors who encourage girls to cultivate math skills can be a highly motivating experience for them.

What do you think? Are teachers doing enough to encourage girls to study math? What steps could be taken to undermine the stereotype that girls simply aren’t as good as boys at the subject?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.