Thursday, February 11, 2010

Girls and Math

Apparently there’s been quite a lot of press about a study that was recently published, linking math anxiety of female elementary school teachers with girl math anxiety. I learned about the study through this article by Ashley from Small Strokes (appearing in the Thirteenth Carnival of Feminists), who expressed frustration that the study included no male teachers, and anger towards the implication that “it is clearly the female teachers’ fault that their female students hate math”.

It’s interesting for me to think about female math anxiety, as someone who is a woman and has a degree in mathematics. I never feared math growing up as a schoolgirl. I was good at math, although I freely admit I did find most of it to be terribly tedious and uninteresting until I took calculus. (Ah, Calculus, when the angels in my head danced for joy and excitement… but I digress)

What’s more, I cannot say that I ever perceived my elementary school teachers, all of them women, ever expressing any kind of anxiety or aversion towards math. Upon my first read of the news reports, I couldn’t help but wonder, are female elementary school teachers more math anxious today than they were 30 years ago? If they are more math-anxious, why are they so? What can be done to ease women’s anxiety about math, whether they pursue careers in education or something completely unrelated? Why have I never been math-anxious when so many other women are?

In these two articles that appeared in Science Daily, the same basic conclusions are reached.
(1) Girls throughout the world have the same innate ability in mathematics as boys, as proven by standardized test scores
(2) Boys in the U.S. have more confidence in their math skills than girls,
(3) In cultures when there is more gender equality (as defined by more women role models in research related positions, and more educational opportunities and job opportunities for women in fields that require advanced knowledge of math) more girls excel in math and choose math-related careers.

I am among a minority of women who pursued mathematics and/or science in education and career. I am also a woman of privilege in this country. White, suburban middle-class, both parents college graduates. Education was a top priority in my family growing up. It was never “If you go to college…” it was always “When you go to college…” I attended public magnet schools in junior high and high school, and I was surrounded by other kids who, like me, were highly motivated and highly academically inclined. Everyone was pushed equally hard at my school, and was indeed expected to succeed in every class – science or humanities.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, I had two parents that had known familial oppression and didn’t want to pass that on to their own children. “You can’t do...” and “You aren’t good at...” were simply not part of their vocabulary. I was fed messages that I could be whatever I wanted, achieve whatever I could.

These are the messages that all children should receive – boy or girl.

I happen to be the mother of a boy child. Although I cannot stop the bombardment of messages he will receive from his teachers, friends, and the rest of the world as he grows up, my son will know that women are good at math because his mother is. If he chooses a path in life towards math, science, or engineering, I hope that he will assume that women in those fields are as normal and natural as his own mother giving him hugs, reading him bedtime stories, and helping him with his math homework.


  1. Hi Shana,

    I didn't fear math any more than any science class I took....I just got lost when I got to Geometry. I just about as good in Geometry as I did in Miss Christie's General Chemistry! lol


  2. I, like you, don't see how they came to these findings. I pursued mathematics in college and in my career BECAUSE of female inflence. I had several female influences within internships that I had taken through college as well as a female professor (who was the Dean of Accounting, may I add) who motivated for years. I think the biggest influence with regard to this matter is the child's parents. We as parents must always let our children know that we believe in them and know that they can achieve anything, regardless of sex. I grew up with a sexist dad that made me feel that I couldn't achieve things because I was a female. Growing up with that has made me fully aware of the negative feelings that we can put into our own children's heads.