Top 10 Reasons You Think Girls Are Bad at Math and Science
In an archived comic from Dog House Diaries, the artist places two near-identical images side by side. In the first image, one male looks on as another scrawls a mathematical equation on a chalk board.
“Wow, you suck at math,” the male says to the other male.
In the next image, a female is seen scrawling the exact same equation on a chalkboard.
“Wow, girls suck at math,” the same male onlooker states.
Although humorous, the comic speaks of a pernicious view that continues to affect women and society. Despite the continued progress with females in the workforce, there is still a notable absence of women leading math and science professions. It isn’t simply men who perpetuate the stereotype that women are not as innately inclined to these subjects—far from it!
Several studies have shown unconscious biases across the board toward women in regard to their skills in math and science. Even some well-meaning teachers are being shown to believe these stereotypes, and thus the oppression of girls—some who could very well retain the skill set to be math and science prodigies—continues as women choose more “feminine” professions and men lead the pack when it comes to math, science, technology and engineering.
Below, we are counting down the top 10 reasons you (yes, you) believe that girls are bad at math and science. Alongside these reasons, we will be providing research studies and analyses that debunk these beliefs.
We all know that you shouldn’t hire someone under bias or prejudice, and although we still have a long way to go, there has been significant progress in hiring processes that work to ensure that discrimination is not a factor in the process. Still, with the average woman continuing to earn less than men overall, there is still plenty of room (as in, acres and acres’ worth of room) for improvement.
Not all employers who make biased decisions while hiring actually intend to be biased in their decision. What if someone has an implicit or unconscious bias that is affecting their decisions? Sometimes even the most well-meaning of employers fall victim to their subconscious, and this in turn can have an impact on the people we seeing leading fields like math and science (among others).
A 2008 study placed employers in one group and “job candidates” of different gender in another group. The researchers gave candidates a math test which entailed, “…[adding] up sets of two-digit numbers in a 4-minute math sprint. (The researchers did not tell the subjects, but it is already known that men and women perform equally well on this task.)”
In spite of the simple math task being one that both genders could excel at, it was found that when employers were given a photograph of the candidate (which was the only information they had on the candidate), “…men were twice as likely to be hired for the simple math job, no matter whether it was a man or woman doing the hiring…” Moreover, the employers were given an Implicit Association Test, which revealed unconscious biases in regard to perceived ability for men and women in mathematical professions.
Self Fulfilling Prophecies
A self-fulfilling prophecy is defined as, “Any positive or negative expectation about circumstances, events, or people that may affect a person’s behavior toward them in a manner that causes those expectations to be fulfilled…An employer who, for example, expects the employees to be disloyal and shirkers, will likely treat them in a way that will elicit the very response he or she expects.”
In the above example, we saw how bias from employers could lead to such self-fulfilling prophecies, and girls and women have been shown to unconsciously secure their fates as those that either shy away from math and science professions, or whose ability to perform well in these subjects is hindered by internalization of biases.
From a very young age, girls and boys are bombarded with messages about how their gender dictates certain facets of their personality as well as their aspirations. Boys may strive for success in math and science because they are led to believe that their gender provides them with innate skills in these subjects, while girls may experience anxiety at school while being handed math and science projects after being led to believe these subjects will never be their strong suit.
A 2012 study published in Psychological Science sought to investigate the impact that entity theories (defined as the belief that innate qualities can dictate your skill set) had on children. The study involved 144 children between the ages of four and seven who were all instructed to play a matching game involving 3-D block images.
During the first round of the game, one of the researchers told some of the children that the boys playing the game were more successful, while a second group was told that one of the females had excelled at the game, and a third group was given no information.
The impact of those statements was evident in the second, more challenging round of the game. As summarized by Slate:
“The scores of those who were given the gender prompts fell by an average of 12.8 percent. By contrast, children who were told about another individual child’s success or failure stayed about the same. Scores fell 2.9 percent among the kids who heard nothing.”
Both Genders Believe the Stereotype
It isn’t simply men who are perpetuating the stereotype that girls and women are bad at math and science—many females believe it too!
In our first example where employers were found to have biases against women in regard to mathematical ability, the female employers were found to have just as strong as a bias as the male employers. Furthermore, various STEM research studies have shown that “…barriers like stereotypes, gender bias, and a discouraging classroom atmosphere can deter women from pursuing careers in these areas and may explain why there are so few female scientists and engineers.”
Another STEM research study noted, “Femininity is linked to math anxiety towards math and doing worse in math, so it may be difficult for women to feel both feminine and confident in their math abilities.”
More on that in a bit…
Ability Varies by Country
When it comes to a nature versus nurture argument regarding females and their abilities within math and science, nurture would reign supreme according to recent studies. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “…15-year-old girls around the world, outperform boys in science – except for in the United States, Britain and Canada.”
Further research showed that, “…countries with the poorest degrees of gender equality also have the widest gulfs between male and female mathematical performance.”
Conversely, the US Department of Education found that girls, “…who have a strong self-concept regarding their abilities in math or science are more likely to choose and perform well in elective math and science courses and to select math and science-related college majors and careers.”
None of this evidence is surprising, but it is disconcerting to think that girls and women who would otherwise be excelling in math and science and who may also have potential to expound upon these talents with successful—and profitable—careers within the field are pursuing different trajectories due to the biases against them.
Women Choose “Love” Over Math and Science
On an unconscious level, some women feel that pursuing careers in math and science will make them less romantically desirable. During middle and high school years, girls—particularly heterosexual girls—are liable to conform to what society purports to be “attractive” and “desirable” to the opposite sex. Girls are taught to be delicately feminine while boys are taught to be brawny and masculine.
In 2011, Psychology Today made note of different studies that showed women believed men would find them less desirable if they pursued mathematics or science careers and that women also cared about math less when having “romance on the mind.”
“In one study, male and female undergraduates saw images related to either romance (romantic restaurants, beach sunsets, lit candles) or intelligence (eyeglasses, libraries, books), in order to get the students thinking about their romantic or achievement-related goals. Later, they rated their interest in math, technology, science and engineering. The researchers found that among men, interest in these subjects was not influenced by the images they had seen. But among women, those who viewed romantic images expressed far less interest in math and science. (Interestingly, women who viewed intelligence images expressed the same level of interest as the men!)”
Psychology Today went on to note the implications these types of stereotypes have for men as well, i.e., just as women may shy away from careers that are perceived as “masculine”, men may shy away from careers that are perceived as “feminine”, such as those within teaching, counseling and the arts.
We View Science in a Rigid Way
When we think of the word “science,” it is likely that images of beakers, oversized goggles and blown up images of cells beneath a microscope are conjured. In reality, the field of science is much broader than the biological and chemical components. As noted by The Guardian:
“‘Science’ is not just something taught at school. Teachers at a science conference in New York a couple of years ago said that while girls are increasingly resistant to the idea of “science” as a standalone subject when they reach middle school, they are invariably receptive and energetic students when the same scientific principles are presented to them as ‘social studies’.
The weather forecast, climate change, what we eat, illnesses and allergies, methods of transportation, the electronics that fill your house – are all areas of science that surround your daughter. Scientific theory fires her imagination when connected to current or domestic affairs, or when she can empathize.”
Furthermore, there are several degrees within the field of “science” that create more of a draw for women. Women looking to become dietitians will study a variety of scientific principles and many women who enter the field of health education receive a Health Science degree. The curriculum for these types of degrees involves a confection of sciences that blend psychological and emotional principles, which are often more appealing to women, hence the prevalence of female nurses, dietitians and teachers.
Men are On Both Ends of the Bell curve
For every man that demonstrates superiority and the upmost in excellence when it comes to math skills, there is another one that may incur a panic attack at the very sight of an integer.
At least that’s what some have argued while debating the reasons for men garnering the top spots when it comes to mathematics and science professions. According to PsyBlog, “The argument has been that these talented individuals who lie at the extreme end of the bell-curve distribution of mathematical ability are more often men. It’s this extra talent at the extreme high end of ability that is thought to account for the fact that men dominate in fields that require advanced maths skills.”
Still, several other noted studies have shown little difference between male and female mathematical ability overall, which leads researchers to believe that—you guessed it—environmental factors such as cultural bias and stereotypes are the main culprits leading to the disparities between men and women within mathematics and science fields.
People Feel Mathematical Ability is Innate
Both men and women have questioned whether genetics are at play when it comes to math and science skills. A piece by Miles Kimball and Noah Smith in The Atlantic, however, cites the authors’ personal experiences and various studies that negate any theories regarding math being an innate ability.
Furthermore, Kimball and Smith note that mathematics taught in high schools do not require the type of genius that is evident in such anomalies like Terence Tao, a “virtuoso mathematician” whose ability probably surpasses most women’s and men’s.
“Essentially none of us could ever be as good at math as Terence Tao, no matter how hard we tried or how well we were taught. But here’s the thing: We don’t have to! For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.”
Indeed, the general math classes offered in schools are not intended for prodigies—if that were the case, there would be nary a student passing SATs and moving on to college. However, the stereotypes and self fulfilling prophecies that continue to abound on math, gender and genetics could possibly dismantle the strides made by would-be prodigies—particularly if they are female.
Teachers Treat Male and Female Students Differently in Math and Science
The job of a teacher is to nurture the minds of students and provide guidance to help them grow and excel in both their scholastic and professional careers. Unfortunately, when it comes to the existent gender biases within math and science, some teachers may be unconsciously perpetuating stereotypes along with everyone else.
In the article Twenty Reasons Girls Don’t Like Math, it is noted that a study by associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, Sian L. Beilock, “…suggests that female teachers anxious about their math skills pass on their anxieties to their female students. The more the teacher lacked confidence in her math skills, the more the female students adapted her insecure mentality.”
It doesn’t stop there. A recent article from Smithsonian took note of these pernicious attitudes in classrooms by citing results of a study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“In math, the girls outscored the boys in the exam graded anonymously, but the boys outscored the girls when graded by teachers who knew their names. The effect was not the same for tests on other subjects, like English and Hebrew. The researchers concluded that in math and science, the teachers overestimated the boys’ abilities and underestimated the girls’, and that this had long-term effects on students’ attitudes toward the subjects.”
More disconcerting was the fact that all teachers noted in the study were women themselves, demonstrating just how pervasive these biases have become (or perhaps have always been).
How can teachers prevent themselves from unwittingly perpetuating these stereotypes in the classroom? Acknowledgement is the first step, but from there several ways of altering lesson plans and changing perspectives within the classroom can help girls to thrive in the maths and sciences they will encounter. Let’s hop back over to an aforementioned article from The Guardian for some tools.
Some of the most notable points made by this article include:
- Expanding the definition of “science”: As noted previously, there are many scientific attributes within subjects like social studies, nutrition and the like. It has been shown that these subject areas offer a vast amount of appeal to girls, and thus emphasis of the science that exists within these areas may work to quell anxieties girls have when entering lessons on things like biology and chemistry.
- Speak a language that the female brain is more in tune with: According to the article, “…girls generally begin processing information on the brain’s left, or language side.” Talking through mathematical problems and scientific experiments will help to expedite a female’s processing and encourage success.
- Integrate colors and cooking: Girls and women respond more favorably to color and aesthetically appealing patterns—such as floral patterns or butterfly patterns—than boys and men. Using colored blocks and picture books can make the idea of math and science more pleasing to females, calming apprehension and possibly even turning the two into favorite subjects! Furthermore, using things like recipes to help cement skills can have a greater appeal to girls in school, and the “real world” uses can make the subject that much more interesting.
Toys Tell Us So
There may be no greater toy to perpetuate stereotypes and sustain archaic gender roles than Barbie. In 1992, Mattel released Teen Talk Barbie, a gaudily dressed (I mean, weren’t they all pretty gaudy?) platinum blonde bubblegum pop girly, who would actually talk to you at the push of a button. This Barbie offered a slew of profound musings, such as: “Math class is tough!” “Party dresses are fun!” and “Do you have a crush on anyone?”
As an aside, I’d like to note that I actually had one of these dolls at the age of seven, and I am currently wondering if she had anything to do with all the red “Xs” I received when attempting to learn long division. Thanks a lot, Barbie! Oh, and I did have a crush on someone then, and according to Facebook he’s married to someone now who isn’t me. Whomp whomp!
Anyway, in a hilarious twist of fate, the Barbie Liberation Organization (which is apparently a thing that exists) “…tinkered with the circuit boards of Barbie dolls and GI Joe dolls…so that Barbie cried, ‘Vengeance is mine!’ and GI Joe said, ‘Let’s plan our dream wedding.’ This message spoke loud and clear to toy producers all over the world.”
On a more serious note, an aforementioned article expands on the fact that the introduction of certain toys can be the first steps in creating a gender divide when it comes to pursuits within the fields of math and science.
“Toddler boys tinker and toy, while toddler girls are handed dolls. While this has steadily declined over the years, we still face a generation of young learners that believed Lincoln Logs, Legos, racing cars, and simple machines are the tinkering toys for boys, and dolls and coloring books are the artistic toys for girls. Research on the sociological differences in raising young girls and boys suggests that we hand toys to boys that get them revved for math lessons right from the start, while young girls enter the classroom without this upper hand.”
There you have it. Perhaps trading a Barbie for a toy truck or a GI Joe for a coloring book every now and again can create some balance.