In a recent interview, Sheryl Sandberg – the COO of Facebook and the bestselling author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead said “So, stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math. Therefore, girls don't do well at math, and it self-perpetuates. If you ask a girl right before she takes a math test to check off 'M' or 'F' for male or female, she does worse on that test.” Whether it’s nature or nurture or a combination of the two, research shows that there are performance differences between boys and girls in math. What is more worrying is that there seems to be a higher resistance to the subject among girls. As the mother of a daughter this concerns me -I do not want my daughter to grow up thinking “Math is not cool”. We researched the topic in depth to gain some insights on the subject and things parents can do to foster a liking for math in their girls.
So why is it thought that girls are worse than boys in Math and what’s driving it? Here are some reasons:
Natural Aptitude: Over the years research has been conducted to support claims that girls do not have as much of an intrinsic aptitude towards math compared to boys and that this is the reason why teaching and other professions related to math and engineering are male dominated. Recent global research conducted across 75 nations by the University of Missouri and University of Leeds showed that “girls consistently scored higher in reading, while boys got higher scores in math”. Even after accounting for socio-economic differences, the researchers concluded that educators need to “acknowledge that in general, boys and girls are different.”
Gender Equality: Contrasting the above line of reasoning is a stream of work that has focused on demonstrating that gender inequality has played a big role in driving the differences in performance. A study by Janet Hyde, a University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that countries with low gender equality showed a greater gap in math performance and in countries with higher equality the math performance of girls and boys was more aligned. Other research conducted by Harvard University on children of all ages starting with infants also found no cognitive differences in abilities between boys and girls suggesting that it’s not aptitude but other factors at play.
Social Conditioning: While the research is ongoing and inconclusive about the aptitude for math it does appear that girls on average seem to be less inclined to math compared to boys. Blame it on the entertainment/ toy industry that encourages stereotypes such as the 1992 Barbie who said “Math class is tough” or on ourselves whenever we’ve tried to dodge a math problem. I confess that when confronted with questions such as “How much is a gazillion plus a million” I have handily replied saying “Go ask your Dad” – not realizing that I might be inadvertently sending a signal that I shouldn’t be asked the math questions!
So as parents what can we do to try and mitigate some of these natural or social biases? Here are some tips:
Start Early: Our influence as parents is highest in the early years and starts declining once peers and the need to fit in become more important. So make use of the preschool stage to get your daughter comfortable with numbers. As David Geary from University of Missouri says “Parents can give their children an advantage by making them comfortable with numbers and basic math before they start grade school, so that the children will have fewer trepidations”
Use Characters She Likes: Take the help of Disney Princess or Mickey Mouse workbooks to stimulate the initial interest in math. The only word of caution is to make sure that you don’t overdo it because you don’t want your child wanting to do addition only if there are pink flowers in the picture! There are plenty of gender neutral workbooksand DVDs in the market that are fun and can help your child learn.
Make it Real: Math is an everyday concept and it is tangible. So make it real by identifying and bringing up numbers in everyday life – be it in the elevator, when in the car, grocery store etc.
Make it Fun: Math games such as Zingo 1-2-3 orSequence Numbers are fun ways to generate a liking for the subject. Alternatively, there are several good online websites that make it fun for boys and girls alike to practice math.
Math is not optional: While all parents may not agree with this, in our house there is no option to avoid math. Just as we encourage our kids to read every day so also they do some math. This goes back to the idea of engendering a liking and comfort with the subject before our daughter gets to an age where she will be more influenced by other kids around her.
Find role models: This was actually hard! I was quite stumped when my 4 year old asked me “can you tell me about some famous girls who are good in math”. Role models are important especially as girls reach middle or high school and start feeling it’s more important to be pretty than smart or nerdy. Use role models to demonstrate that it’s very attractive to be smart! I extended the list to include famous women in the areas of math, science and the corporate world and here are a few that I came up with:
- Amelia Earhart: The first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean
- Madame Curie: One of the most famous scientists of all time
- Indira Nooyi: CEO of Pepsi
- Jane Goodall: Irrespective of the recent controversy, her work with the primates has been recognized world over
- Sheryl Sandberg, of course
You don’t only have to cite famous people but can also refer to people within your family and friends circle - often that’s easier for little ones to relate to.
In conclusion - the jury is still out on the topic of mathematical aptitude and performance of girls. Irrespective of the reasons, there does seem to be an inherent bias against the subject among many girls and as parents we may want to recognize this and preempt it as far as possible.
Interestingly there is enough research that also shows that boys do worse in reading …but that is a topic for another discussion!
For more of our articles on education and parenting go to http://www.schoolsnmore.com/articles/home
Sex Differences in Intrinsic Attitude in Mathematics and Science? Harvard University http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~lds/pdfs/spelke2005.pdf
Sex Differences in Mathematics and Reading Are Inversely Related http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0057988
Gender, Culture and Mathematics Performance – Janet Hyde & Janet Mertz http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/06/01/0901265106.abstract