When Girls Leave Math and What To Do About It

June 14, 2011

The conversation around gender and mathematics is often driven by poignant anecdote or by statistics. We have either the individual story of heartache or we have a set of disheartening numbers, and in either case, I feel frustrated. But every now and then a study comes out that gives more specific data, data which gives one a sense of honing in on the problem, whatever it may be. Yes, women are poorly represented in the higher echelons of mathematics, but why? We are now closer to knowing, if not fully the why, the when.

Anecdotes are popular because they feel personal. Statistics don’t describe individuals, not at all. They describe groups, and the best groups they describe are the really big ones, which are precisely the places we feel most lost as individuals. No, we cannot understand the story by statistics alone. We need anecdotes. Try this: I worked for a while as a mathematics consultant in a particular school, and in one of the third grade classrooms I regularly worked in, the (male) teacher had a large poster of a scantily clad cheerleading squad of a professional football team. Perhaps I’m bearing a burden of overly traditional values, but it felt like a not-so-subtle message to the girls about roles women play in our culture.

Most people in the US, mathematicians and not, have noticed that somewhere around high school, popular opinion seems to have settled on who will bear the mantle of mathematicians. Guess who it is. It is the boys. This is borne out by the numbers of women who go on to pursue advanced degrees in mathematics (the statistics). While the number is higher than it used to be, there is still an astonishing rate of attrition from college to graduate school to post docs to tenured faculty positions. None of this should come as a surprise if you haven’t been living under a rock (and if it does come as a surprise, I want to come check out your rock).

What scientists have done now is find that a person’s sense of place in mathematics is established earlier than high school. Earlier even than middle school, and perhaps now the element of surprise is starting to take hold. A study by the University of Washington Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences has shown that by second grade, the gender role in mathematics is established.

This is so early!

Specifically, the study showed that girls develop a sense that boys are better at math than girls. More significantly, a girl believes in general that boys are better at math, and since she is a girl, math is not for her. What a tragedy; how is mathematics ever to rise from muck of being misunderstood and maligned if half the population learns they are not to identify with it by second grade? I am, of course, being a little bit loose here. Obviously not every girl is chased away from math, and not every boy is nurtured. But systems are bigger than individuals, and on a systemic level, there is a problem.

What to do, what to do. I guess no one is really surprised that it happens. We’ve all known that at some point, some students identify more with mathematics than others. What is hard is that it happens much sooner than most of us expected. By second grade, we’d hope children will have developed habits of hygiene and good manners at most, not deeply ingrained perceptions about where they are destined to go in our society.

But let’s not roll over yet. I think that there are things we can do about this. Children assimilate an incredible amount of information about social roles and structures from the adults around them. Given that many many adults dislike math or at best tolerate it as a tool, a means to an end, and given in particular that women are more likely to shy away from math than men, it is not so surprising that girls learn this lesson hard and early. Let’s break this cycle.

Want to show a girl in your life that math is for her? Get her around women who do math joyously. If you are a female teacher or a mother, learn how to love mathematics and let it shine through your eyes. The girls around you will notice and slowly integrate a new way of relating to the subject. Find women role models who embrace mathematics. Tell your girl children that math is for them in as many ways as you can think of. Can’t think of any? Here are a few ideas:
-Do math around them and invite them to participate.
-Play games with them. Solve puzzles with them.
-Talk about math at home.
-Ask questions! And encourage theirs!
-Change your own relationship to math from one of fear to one of love.

Perhaps it seems like you bring a pebble and I ask you to turn it into a palace. Some of these things are hard to do and can take much conscientious effort; changing anything from fear to love, for example. But to alter a system that begins to solidify as early as second grade will take effort. It will take time. Put your back into it, sister.

Really, most of these things will benefit all children. But for our girls, whose contributions are so desperately needed in the sometimes stodgy field of mathematics, developing a healthy and nurturing culture of mathematics at home, with the women in their lives, can change their perception of mathematics from one of exclusion to one of welcome.

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Teng Teng
Teng Teng
3 years ago

This is as if you are talking to me, a mother of a young child, whose math learning experience in her childhood had destroyed math for her for life. Thank you for writing this. I was so overwhelmed and helpless of my new role (math tutor) as a mother but now I’m less scared ???????????? thank you thank you thank you ????

Kristie Smith
Kristie Smith
2 years ago

What an inspirational article! Thank you for sharing this.
I love teaching math. As a mom of 4 girls and a teacher of 26 years, I am inspired to show my love of math to ALL!!!

John McKelvey
John McKelvey
2 years ago

Thank you so much for writing this! As the happy grandfather of five (four of whom are girls) I am trying to do everything I can to encourage and support my grands in STEM in general and math in particular. My own unfortunate experiences with math in public school sadly kept me from enjoying it until I was nearly finished with college. This in turn, greatly slowed me from pursuing what I really wanted to do (teaching High School Biology). I don’t want any children to have to repeat my experience. I know that I am preaching to the choir,… Read more »