Mathematics Opinion

The Persistence of Gender Myths in Math

By Rosalind Chait Barnett & Caryl Rivers — October 12, 2004 5 min read
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Should we be worried that young girls are not pursuing math-related careers at the same rate as young men? After all, in our technological era, many of tomorrow’s well-paying jobs will require competence at mathematics. But today, women make up only 19 percent of the science, engineering, and technology workforce. In 1998, only 16 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women, down from nearly 40 percent in 1984, and the downward trend continued in 2003.

Can teachers have a role in changing this picture? Or would they just be going up against innate biological differences in a futile attempt at social engineering?

Should we be worried that young girls are not pursuing math-related careers at the same rate as young men?"

Some argue that girls don’t have the right brain structures to be good at math. Cambridge University Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of The Essential Difference, goes so far as to say that men have “systematizing brains” well-suited for the hard sciences. Women, in contrast, have “empathizing brains,” designed for caretaking and mothering. And the best-selling author Michael Gurian (The Wonder of Boys) says that only 20 percent of girls have the right brain structure for performing well at math.

It is indeed the case that men far outnumber women in math-related fields. But is this evidence for innate male superiority? The answer is no. New research finds few sex differences in the math abilities of boys and girls. In 2001, sociologists Erin Leahey and Guang Guo of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at some 20,000 math scores of students between the ages of 4 and 18 and found no differences of any magnitude, even in areas that are supposedly male domains, such as reasoning skills and geometry. The finding astonished the researchers, who said, “Based on prior literature … we expected large gender differences to emerge as early as junior high school, but our results do not confirm this.” And a meta-analysis of sat scores for some 3 million students found that girls and boys performed virtually identically in math.

So if it’s not innate differences, what accounts for the male dominance in math-related fields? Some say that women simply opt out of math-related careers because they don’t like such jobs. For Harvard University’s Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate), the answer is simply free choice. For example, he cites a study of gifted students in which the majority of boys chose engineering, while most girls—who were equally talented at math—chose medicine or history or journalism as more interesting and challenging. The girls, he says, weren’t steered away from math; they just liked the other subjects better. Other researchers, however, ask whether girls’ choices are conscious ones.

In our culture, the association between males and math is incredibly strong and is widely accepted by both males and females. When girls believe that adult men are better than adult women at math, it erodes their confidence in their own ability to succeed. Even college women who are majoring in math often say that boys are better at the subject. Parents and teachers who wouldn’t consciously try to hold back girls in math may do so unwittingly, because this belief is so ingrained in our culture. For example, in two longitudinal studies of school-age children and their parents, researchers found that parents are more likely to attribute a boy’s success in math to “natural talent,” whereas a girl succeeding is seen as “hardworking.”

The power of stereotypes can be clearly seen as kids progress through the grades—and it’s not a pretty picture. Children learn at a young age that boys are supposed to be better at math than girls, and the downward spiral begins:

• In the 3rd and 4th grades, boys and girls like math equally. There’s no change in the 5th and 6th grade for boys, but girls’ preference declines. Between the 4th and 12th grades, the percentage of girls who say they like science decreases from 66 percent to 48 percent.

Even girls who are doing well may nevertheless be susceptible to gender stereotypes when it comes to choosing a college major or a future career."

• In those same years, the percentage of girls who say they would prefer not to study math anymore goes from 9 percent to a whopping 50 percent.

• As grade levels increase, both girls and boys increase their perceptions of math as useful for men. By the 8th grade, girls are less likely than boys to enjoy science or math and seem to have less confidence in these subjects.

It’s hard to believe it’s coincidence or choice that makes girls’ enjoyment of math and science dip so severely. Rather, the culture has convinced them that girls don’t belong in these fields. And many girls do buy into these ideas—both consciously and unconsciously. The more they accept such ideas, the less likely they are to seriously pursue math careers.

This is where teachers come in. Even girls who are doing well, say, in 6th grade math, may nevertheless be susceptible to gender stereotypes when it comes to choosing a college major or a future career. Teachers can help undo this straitjacket by understanding how the stereotype works. For a girl to develop a positive attitude toward math, she has to unlearn the male=math connection. As a female, she has to realize that there is nothing “gendered” about math. She has to build a new female=math connection. And that isn’t easy. But teachers can be the architects of such a new model by stressing the fact that girls are not inferior to boys in math ability, and that they are as likely to succeed in math careers as males are.

Teachers also should examine the degree to which they themselves may have—unconsciously—accepted the math=male equation. New studies show that this stereotype is strong and, most importantly, can persist outside conscious awareness or control. This being the case, there is an urgent need to set up educational programs starting in the early grades to counter the effects of these insidious stereotypes.

Time isn’t working in girls’ favor, as we see by the depressing statistics about girls’ avoidance of math. But with a concerted effort, we can reverse these trends. At Carnegie Mellon University, aggressive outreach brought the incoming science class from 7 percent women in 1995 to 40 percent in 2000—an astonishing 600 percent increase. But this kind of progress won’t be widespread until we stop believing that males are innately superior at math, much as we have stopped believing that the earth is flat.

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