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Girls And Numbers: Can They Add Up?


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Chaya had a knack for numbers from when she was young. While baking with her mother as a four year old, Chaya would double recipes easily.

“Mommy, instead of two eggs, you need four. Instead of one cup of flour, you need two. And, put in, I think, three cups of sugar instead of one and a half.”

As she got older, Chaya’s ease with numbers expanded to multiplying her allowance.

“So, Tatti, if I save my $2 allowance for the next two and a half months, that is ten weeks. After ten weeks, I will have $20 and then I will be able to buy Naomi that doll for her birthday.”

In sixth grade, Chaya was the designated banker when her family played Monopoly, helping her siblings figure out how to “unmortgage” their properties if they needed to add 10% to the cost of the mortgage.

“Well, Yossi, your mortgage was $70, and 10% of $70 is $7, so you owe the bank $77.”

But, as Chaya got older, she realized that she was one of the few girls in her class and among her friends who truly liked math. Some of her friends would ask her, “Chaya, boys are so much better at math than girls. How come you are so good at it?”

***

In truth, there is a common misconception that boys are better at math than girls, or that men are better with numbers than women. In fact, this is such a prevalent false impression, that the U.S. Department of Education created a statement to combat that misconception:

Although there is a general perception that men do better than women in math and science, researchers have found that the differences between women’s and men’s math and science-related abilities and choices are much more subtle and complex than a simple “men are better than women in math and science.”

Until recently, the scientific community believed that male-female differences in math and science were caused by biology. In other words, because boys’ and girls’ brains are wired differently, they will automatically do better in different subjects. The notion was that boys have superior spatial abilities, making them better suited for certain mathematical manipulations. Girls, on the other hand, are supposed to be better at language and writing. However, recently, this biological argument has been debunked.

Over the past two decades, researchers have focused on the influence of a child’s environment on his or her math and science achievement. Think about what toys boys and girls are given to play with, even from a very young age. Boys are encouraged, for the most part, to play with blocks, Legos, racing cars, and other moving objects. On the other hand, girls are pushed to play with dolls, toy kitchens, and dress-up clothing. While boys’ toys often involve principles inherent in math and science, girls’ toys focus on imagination and creativity. From these early experiences, it’s easy to understand why girls gravitate to English and history and boys are drawn to math and science.

However, a recent article in October 2011’s edition of Psychological Bulletin reports that after an examination of 1.3 million students, it is clear that males and females have equal math skills. So, aside from the different ways that children play, what accounts for the perception that girls are worse at math than boys?

Interestingly, perhaps it is this stereotype that reinforces the idea. In other words, when parents, teachers, or school counselors believe the stereotype, they are less likely to encourage or support a young girl’s decision to take math and science in high school and beyond. Studies have shown that when parents believe boys are better at math than girls, they are willing to let their daughters drop out of math class when the going gets tough. With sons, however, the same parents will encourage persistence. Jasna Jovanovic of the National Network for Child Care writes, “In the classroom, teachers, often unaware of their own biases, call on boys more, praise boys more for correct answers, and are more likely to ask boys for help in science and math demonstrations. The message girls get is that they are not as good as boys.”

So, what can we do to encourage girls to excel in math based on their natural abilities?

1. Choose toys thoughtfully. Encourage your daughters to play with building toys and support your boys in imaginative play. Both the left and right sides of your child’s brains will grow from these alternative types of play. Break free from stereotypes and expand your child’s horizons.

2. Talk to your child’s teacher. Find out what your child is doing in math and science at school. Does your child come home excited about fun experiments in school? If not, maybe you can do some fun science experiments at home: cook up a volcano, shine some pennies in vinegar, or make your own rock candy. These fun activities will inspire your children to become more involved in science.

3. Promote math and science courses in high school. Competitive colleges want to see students who took advanced math and science courses – don’t let your daughters shy away from these classes. Who knows what kinds of strengths they are simply unaware of?

4. Avoid stereotypes. Let your children know that both boys and girls can excel in math. Confidence is integral to success.

5. Provide strong role models. If the mother in the family does not feel comfortable with math, then look towards other females who are mathematically or scientifically inclined. Giving your daughters and sons role models to look up to will allow them to believe that both men and women can succeed.

Today, women can have any job they want: accountants, doctors, lawyers, financial analysts, psychologists, and many more. With so many opportunities available to women and men, why should we pigeonhole our sons and daughters into categories based on gender? Let’s continue to level the playing field so girls like Chaya can have all the opportunities open to them!

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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