Girls Need to Say “Math Is for Me”

Ideas about women not being “hardwired” to do math are falling like dominoes in the research area.

But deep down, do girls and women really believe it? And will they take steps, as they grow, to make high-paying careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) a reality?

New research finds that the answer may be no.

Researcher Pascal Huguet of Aix-Marseille University in France found in 2009 that middle school girls did less well on a math test when told that boys generally did better in math than girls. Without the negative information, they score nearly as well as men. In fact, by middle school, the cause is already lost for many girls. Stereotype threat–that confidence-killing burden of anxiety–has already set in.

Yet girls and boys in elementary, middle and high school take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers, and girls perform at least as well as boys. More good news comes from the Girl Scouts Foundation. Its recent study finds that 74 percent of teen girls are interested in STEM and 82 percent see themselves as smart enough to have a career in STEM.

But even as college-educated women have increased their share of the overall work force, they hold a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering.

Women with a STEM degree are less likely than male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation; a 2011 report from the Commerce Department finds that women hold less than 25 percent of [STEM jobs].

This is important for women’s financial futures as well as the country’s technology: Women with STEM jobs earned 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs.

Fortunately, there is a window of opportunity. A team led by psychologist Anthony Greenwald at the University of Washington discovered that although girls in the early grades see math largely as a male preserve, they haven’t yet made the connection that “because I am a girl, math is not for me.” So there is a short period of time during which girls are relatively open to the idea that they can enjoy and do well at math.

We need to do all we can to help math-and-science girls believe in themselves. We also need to help them believe that STEM careers are not for lonely male “nerds.” Engineering and science are typically collaborative efforts; the image of the socially awkward loner is a far cry from reality.

Also, we know that women often look for jobs that have a social impact; where they can do good while they do well financially.  STEM offers plenty of that. Scientific teams drastically reduced childhood leukemia, are saving the Everglades, preserving sea turtles in the Caribbean, reducing AIDS in Africa. This is too often not what girls think when they hear the words “math and science.”

We need to adjust that picture.

Excerpted from Women’s eNews Photo by Flickr user gr8matt under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Lover Girl says:

    I am a teen with NLD so I have genuine struggles in those areas though sometimes I am afraid if the people who did my tests were already sexist.

  2. Lover Girl says:

    In my high school, the simplest math u can take is Essentials, and there are way more boys in it.

  3. Girls are fed baloney from their earliest years. Boys are expected and encouraged to be smart — girls are expected and urged to be pretty. The propaganda pours on them from every source, as soon as they can speak and understand — grandparents, TV & movies, garbage-talk at school from boys, etc. I became a scientist by being a definitively “bad” girl, according to my relatives. I had a long, good career — the baloney faded after a few years, and I was accepted. I even got to be not-the-only-woman in my varied employment. But the backwards pressure on girls is increasing now, not disappearing. The filth coming from the Republican/Tea/Fascist Party is frightening, truly a war against women. Sweep them out!

  4. Girls need to SEE and HEAR about women in STEM. check out where we profile a Physicist, CEO of a telecom, a surgeon, an aerospace engineer – All in STEM and we also profile women who have shattered the glass ceiling in other areas – politics, police, historians. MORE to come as we get more funding and connections. Help us get the word out and our FREE videos in front of young people. Thanks!

  5. My daughter had serious math anxiety which led to falling grades, but only after having been labeled “the pretty girl” by her friends in 3rd grade. She was told her best gf was the smart one and would be a doctor, but that was ok because she was the prettiest girl in school. Suddenly she forgot math concepts she had known, broke down in tears of frustration over homework, and finally one night wailed “I’m just pretty, I’m not good at math!” Broke my heart and infuriated me.
    After countless hours spent refusing to let her give up, reminding her how naturally math used to come, and finally telling her the best thing to do with her frustration was to prove everyone wrong, she came around. 3 years later and she comes home bragging about the boys she’s tutoring in math and science. Luckily, we got to her before any permanent damage was done, but it was a close call. Too close.

  6. Mercury says:

    I didn’t get into math until my first year of undergrad, when I had a professor who showed us some neat stuff and really made it fun. Having female role models in the department–both other students and professors–meant a whole lot to me. I didn’t have enough time to switch my major (I was already in a humanities track), but I am starting a transitional graduate program in the fall and I’m super excited to get to do more math.

    Girls, don’t let anyone tell you that your gender makes you bad at math! I’ve known plenty of ladies who absolutely kicked tail at it, including a girl who graduated summa cum laude, with honors, with a double major in chem and math. Math can be really hard, but you’d be surprised at how far you can get with some determination and flash cards. 😀

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