Q: Girls are less skilled at math and science: fact or fiction?
A: The U.S. Department of Education elucidates a common 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, the two genders are better suited for different subjects. The notion is 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.
In the past two decades, researchers have focused on the influence of the children’s environment on their 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 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’s edition of Psychological Bulletin reports that after an examination of 1.3 million students, 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?
- Choose toys thoughtfully. Encourage your daughters to play with building toys and support your boys in imaginative play. Break free from stereotypes and expand your child’s horizons.
- 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?
- 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.
- Avoid stereotypes. Let your children know that both boys and girls can excel in math. Confidence is integral to success.
Today, women can have any job they want: accountants, doctors, lawyers, financial analysts, psychologists, and many more. Let’s continue to encourage all of our children to achieve their potential.