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It All Adds Up for Girls

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Is your daughter not a fan of math? It might be her teachers' (and your) fault!

girl doing math

Dr. Nina Shapiro: A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that many of the stereotypes that girls are weaker in math than boys may be true.

Well, let me rephrase that. Girls THINK they are SUPPOSED TO BE weaker in math than boys. And unfortunately, these conceptions carry through to reality. Surprisingly, the source of such conception starts early, as soon as first and second grade. And it's not the girls or the boys themselves who set this stage, but their female teachers. The study evaluated female elementary school teachers who themselves had anxiety about their own abilities in math, and found that these anxieties translated to their female students, undermining the performance of girls.

The girls and boys were both tested in math at the beginning of the year, and were found to be on equal footing. But at the end of the year, after spending time with a female teacher with "math anxieties," a gap developed between the girls' skills and those of the boys. The girls were also assessed at the beginning and the end of the school year regarding their beliefs about math and gender. By the spring, the "math is for boys" stereotype was stronger in the classes with math-anxious teachers. The study reports that it is unclear how this anxiety is translated, but clearly there is something that is being picked up by the girls regarding math and gender-specificity. Even if the girls don't see their teachers struggle at math, they are obviously sensing some weakness or stress on the part of their teachers.

My own first-grader's female teacher has actually openly admitted to the parents that she struggled in math at school, to the point of having to repeat some of the math in later grades. That statement is certainly not a subliminal one. And, with the year halfway through, my first-grade daughter is already coming home telling me that reading is "easy," and math is "hard and boring." Prior studies have shown that there is actually equal ability in math across the gender bridge. A 2008 study looked at math test scores from 7 million American students in grades 2 through 11, and found no difference between boys and girls. But this new 2010 study, of 6- to 8-year-old girls (first- and second-graders), showed that the discomfort on the part of female teachers may transfer to female students.

I'm not suggesting that we march into our child's classroom and demand challenging math for our arithmetically weaker girls, but this is a bit of a wake-up call on how influences start so early. While their teachers are influential in their early development, so are we as mothers. Don't leave the math games for dad and the reading for you. While you may not care for your girl to be a math whiz, there is no harm in letting her know that math is not masculine, nor is it necessarily "hard" and "boring." Math is everywhere. It's in nature. It's in art. It's in science. Numbers can even be beautiful. As beautiful as the written word.

next: Why Nosy Kids Drive Us Nuts!
5 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous January 31, 2010, 4:41 AM

Schools need to think outside the box. In middle and high school, teachers who are strong or degreed in math teach the math courses. Yet in elementary, they want teachers to be masters of all things. Some schools have gotten smart and have allowed students to switch classes between two or more teachers where they can teach to their strengths. Yet that concept is not promoted in the primary grades. It should be. That way kids won’t get “bored” and they might end up liking all subjects.

Betty January 31, 2010, 12:18 PM

A great summary and conclusion. Math is everywhere and girls may even have an
intuitive and biological understanding. It would be a shame to thwart a positive
interest at such an early age. Thanks for
this article.

adelaide dancing January 31, 2010, 6:32 PM

it’s unfortunate that we are taught in school that certain things are boring (although not intentional) and then we make the resolution that once we are out of school to never do that thing again i love the new generation of computer games especially the nintendo ds which makes learning fun, wish i had that sort of thing when i was growing up!

Anonymous January 31, 2010, 9:41 PM

I credit my own success in math, including first year univerity, to the influence of a male teacher who had no math anxiety whatsoever, but was able to convey his own love for the subject instead.

clusterdevils April 4, 2011, 9:33 AM

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