September 5, 2011 / Education, Opportunity, Safety, Youth

Girls Closing Gap and Shutting Down Myths That Say Boys Are Better in Math


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

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According to Jane Hyde, a psychologist from the University of Wisconsin, “the stereotype that boys are better at math is alive and strong…Parents still believe it, and teachers still believe it” (Alice Park, Time Science). But based on the research she and other researchers from University of California, Berkeley, are conducting, this stereotype is just that: a stereotype and a myth, and girls are shutting it down with irrevocable force.

Funded by the National Association of Science and based on “math tests administered to 7.2 million second- through 11th-grade students in 10 states,” Hyde’s research showed that there was very little difference between the scores. The reason? Girls are taking more math classes than they used to, debunking the stereotypes that whisper daily in their ears that math is a boys’ subject and fashion is a girls’.

When Hyde studied this issue back in the 90s, she found that girls and boys scored equally well in math in elementary school, but that by the time they reached high school, girls stepped back and away from math. She attributes this to the attitudes and stereotypes engendered by society and not to biology. The academic authors of Beyond Bias and Barriers agree:

Studies of brain structure and function, of hormonal modulation of performance, of human cognitive development, and of human evolution have not revealed significant biological differences between men and women in performing science and mathematics that can account for the lower representation of women in these fields…The differing social pressures and influences on boys and girls appear to have more influence than their underlying abilities on their motivations and preferences (The National Academies Press 25).

And it is no wonder when we have stores selling shirts to girls with a caption that reads, “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother will do it for me.” Although the shirt was pulled off  JC Penney’s online store, it is obvious why our girls have been derailed when it comes to their education.

About ten years ago, I was proctoring the Regents exams in a NY high school for which I was employed, and my jaw dropped when I tried to read the words on one of my student’s shirt. It read, “With these, who needs math?” How does a 15-year-old learn to equate breasts with power, with intelligence? From whom, from where does she acquire the information that teaches her that the large size of her breasts are the only tools she needs to be successful in life? Who’s at fault?

We live in a society that engenders vanity over brains, especially when it comes to girls. From Disney Princess products, two-piece bikinis, and hoochy shorts  to shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Dance Moms” girls from the ages of 2-5 are already being sent messages as to their value. It is a value based on self-image focused on looks and beauty. Nothing deeper is expected or required.

For the older girls, a world of pink abounds from toys to laptops to clothing as well as shows that define girlhood and womanhood for them. From “Pretty Little Liars,”  the “Twilight” series, and “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” all the way down to the dregs of society represented in “Jersey Shore,” girls are told that sex appeal will not only get them the guy — any guy — but will also make them rich and famous. They are being told — through visual aids — that sex is the only tool they will need to get ahead, get what they want, and succeed. And then there are shirts  and pants they can purchase that tell the world for them that their bodies possess all the natural gifts they will ever need: breasts, hot looks, pretty face and hair, and lithe limbs with which to secure men, jobs, and money.

We are not raising girls this way; we are raising commodities. We are raising objects of sexual desires — masculine desires — and then we wonder why they don’t do well in math or science. This is why. Because from the moment they are born, everyone and everything around them targets them with equal zeal — not to compete with brains and pure potential, but to compete with their bodies and their looks. And this is not empowerment. It is not equality. It does not the definition of a girl’s worth — let alone a human being’s worth. When we value our girls, they will learn to value themselves. And as Hyde points out at the beginning, collectively, parents and teachers need to step up and clear the path that will enable girls to fulfill their potential.

Parents can accomplish this by becoming aware of their own gender biases — and they do exist. It has become common knowledge that when young girls lose interest in math and the sciences by middle schoola nd high school, parents just nod their heads. If the boys did this, the parents would put up a fight. Parents and children both have become conditioned in believing the archaic notion that girls are emotional and boys are logical. These are stereotypes and yet they are spewed from the mouths of PhD’s and MD’s and teachers as if they are fact-based truths. If we say these things aloud, it is no wonder that our kids begin to believe them — boys and girls alike.

In terms of education, the Equitable Classroom Practices Institute (ECPI) was a summer institute that involved teachers from 11 Houston schools in focusing on strategies, lessons, and curriculum that teachers could implement in the classroom to create an equitable learning environment. Strategies like calling on female students as much as males, asking higher level questions, using gender-free language (not calling girls “guys”), model non-biased language and behavior in the classroom and in the school, and even keeping a journal on biases the teacher noticed in others and in oneself.

In Dallas, they have already begun implementing gender equity exercises in their instruction of math and physics, learning how their own personal biases affect the success of their female students. In 2003-2004, the Gender Equity Institute, founded and supported by the Women of TI Fund, initiated gender-equitable teaching strategies to be used by professors in their college instruction in the sciences, and many local schools began adopting these same teaching strategies in order to empower girls in the classroom and also learn more about their own biases as individuals.

One teacher video-taped his classes and was shocked to realize that he allowed his male students to interrupt his female students during class discussions. Our biases overlap into what we do, even without us realizing. What is important about these strategies is that teachers can become aware of how they influence the self-esteem of girls in their classes, especially when it comes to STEM fields, and then take preemptive measures to cease the damaging perceptions of gender that accost girls in the classroom.

According to Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, even though women have made great strides in the last 30 years in terms of entering the STEM fields and holding PhD’s in Sciences and Engineering, women “still make up only one-fifth of the nation’s scientific and technical workers” (14).

Academia in general needs to confront biases that stand in the way of hiring women for these fields and accounting for the lower number of them who remain. Not only do they need to actively recruit women for jobs, they also need to make the work environment less hostile. Perhaps they should implement the self-monitoring and teaching strategies employed by the Dallas teachers who strive to make learning a safer and more equitable environment for girls.

With Hyde’s new research results, perhaps more of our girls are getting the message that they are just as smart, just as capable as boys. That math and science and engineering and technology are not subjects beyond their scope of understanding, but they continue to face barriers and gaps once they leave high school that deter them from moving forward and upward. It is the job of all us — parents, mentors, and teachers —  to pave a gender-free, biased-free path for them that will lead them to their full potential — not the vain and powerless one our media-based society constructs for them.

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  • Bes

    “debunking the stereotypes that whisper daily in their ears that math is a boys’ subject and fashion is a girls’.”

    Although I agree with everything said in this article I also think the representation that fashion is a girls subject is just as crippling as the concept that math and science are male subjects. Fashion is just fashion and the fashion/beauty industry has a very high number of males in it, true many of them are gay men, but gay men are men, they are not women and they don’t speak for women. As a woman I really resent the fashion angle being taken to attempt to interest me in topics. Again the defunct Sports Illustrated women’s sports magazine comes to mind. The fashion covers were outright offensive and the tone of the mag seemed to be “women who play sports can be hot and buy fashion and beauty products too!” When I see the fashion angle I tune out.

    I have a daughter who is in Engineering school now. she told me she has more women in her classes this year. Specifically there are 10 women out of 150 students. I can’t put my finger on what the problem is. She was recruited heavily and offered financial aid from every school she applied to. There is a women’s lounge in the engineering building that was comfortably furnished with grants from some of the big companies in the state that hire engineers. The girls can go in there if they get to feeling overwhelmed by the male environment and they also get to meet the other girls in the program that way. Someone is subsidizing expensive fun activities for the Professional Women Engineers members. She has had trouble with a few boys who don’t think women should be there but that has lead to vocal support from the vast majority of males who like the women there. She was given a woman mentor her Freshman year and her counselor has gotten her into every full class she has requested. I don’t know what it will take to change things.

  • Beautifully said. Young girls are overwhelmingly told through marketing and media messages that what makes them valuable is their looks. That makes it difficult to believe otherwise, even with support from parents and teachers. In addition to funding these great programs, we all need to push back on the commercial sexualization of girls and women.

  • JeanLouise

    Brava to the girls and women who are challenging this damaging stereotype. Brava to the teachers, parents and mentors who are making a difference, too.

  • Bes

    In thinking about the lack of young women choosing engineering and science professions it really could be the way math is taught in the early years of school. At our house Daddy is an engineer and can do all sorts of math. So my kids never experienced more than 5 minutes of math frustration before they had a Daddy tutor step in. Also working math problems or asking questions was a sure way to get Daddy’s undivided attention. So they were heavily rewarded early on for math behaviors while as a kid I was constantly frustrated by math and had no one to help me in the evenings when I finally accepted I didn’t get it at all. So maybe free evening math labs would help although I don’t know who would pay for that in public schools.

  • samsmom

    I was one of the first women in a top notch engineering school 40 years ago. There are substantially more women there now (about 1/3 of the students). I think that what has helped is that those of us who were first made a significant effort to reach behind and bring other women along behind us. Both on campus and in recruiting other women into the companies where we worked. Some of us became teachers to change the message that girls get. When my own daughter decided she was going to “cut back on math and science” when she got to high school, I told her that every year she signed up for a math and a science class, I would continue to do her laundry and make her bed. Knowing how much I hate housework, it showed her that her taking math and science was important to me in a fun motherly way. She took math and science all four years and was pleasantly surprised at the leg up it gave her in college. The first weekend she came home she made my bed and did my laundry.