Wait, girls aren’t good at math?

I have female friends in STEM fields who were told, some at a very young age, that “girls aren’t good at math.”  Some said that adults expressed surprise at their abilities in math and science, because that was strange for girls.  Even my husband remembers being aware as a child that girls weren’t supposed to be good at math.  In the readings from “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele, the gap between women’s and men’s success in math is mentioned many times.

Honestly, this is all very strange to me.  I was a girl who loved math, now grown into a female engineer, and I don’t remember a single time before high school when anyone told me anything negative about girls and math.  I remember being encouraged to enjoy math by many female teachers (I don’t think I had a male teacher until seventh grade).  I remember being called a “little engineer” by my parents at a very young age (normally in exasperation when I did something that made perfect sense to me, but apparently didn’t to the rest of the world).  I remember being the fourth grade “fast math” champion and being inordinately proud of a skill that, I realize now, is really not very useful.  I remember doing a report on Grace Hopper (the inventor of the first computer compiler) in sixth grade and being more impressed by the fact that she was a Navy admiral than the fact that she was a female computer scientist (my father was in the Navy).

I realize that my childhood was out of the norm in this way.  I honestly don’t know why I didn’t hear about this incredibly pervasive stereotype.  In light of the studies Steele discusses, I do wonder if or how this has affected my academic performance.  Did anyone else have a similar experience?

16 thoughts on “Wait, girls aren’t good at math?”

  1. Oh my gosh I’m in the same boat! Forgive my slight moment of arrogance: I’m a girl and was always the best student in math class from elementary through high school (I come from a small town so it’s not a momentous accomplishment). But yeah, I was really surprised to read about that stereotype as well. Especially because, continuing on the theme that I am from a small town, people there tend to be a little on the discriminatory side (I love them all dearly, they’ve just lived on the side of a mountain for generations), so if there is a negative stereotype to propagate, that would be the place to do it. But I never encountered any shock or surprise that I was good at math or that I made better grades than boys, or else I was just very blind to it if there was.

    1. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one! Everyone seems to just take it as a given that this stereotype exists and that it affects young girls, but that really wasn’t my experience at all.

  2. I would say that I had a very similar experience. But my experience comes from the fact that I went to an all girls school for 9 years until I entered college. Even in college I never experienced this stereo typing or any stereo typing which impacted my studies or my life in a bad way! However, I definitely understand how stereo typing could hinder one’s ability to be confident and feel just as worthy as anyone else. For this reason I think addressing this issue in the classroom by paying close attention to how we provide feedback, design exams, treat students, and most importantly how we teach students to treat each other is very important.

    1. Yes, I suppose an all-girls school would make that kind of bias difficult. Though I’ve heard that some people get it outside school as well, from friends and parents, I suppose.

  3. In my country (Puerto Rico) we don’t have such segregation between boys and girls in terms of their academic abilities, at least thats what I experienced. Actually, girls in most of my classes were more knowledgeable, responsible that most of us and also they had the highest grades. I was wondering what makes you say that the skill that you had in fourth grade is not useful? makes me wonder what is your major. The reason why Im asking is because I studied Civil Engineering and now in my PhD I still need such skill that like you I have since I was a little kid.

    1. I’m an industrial engineer, but I actually do very little arithmetic. The “Fast Math” competition in fourth grade involved being able to perform complicated arithmetic (adding large numbers, etc.) very quickly. I think I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to add large numbers without a calculator since high school. I’m sure that having that skill has helped me in other, more subtle, ways during my life, but it’s not directly useful to me anymore. I was so proud when I was 9, though!

  4. Thanks for your post. Apparently the idea that “girls aren’t good at math” is common in some areas… But I don’t remember growing up with it either. I think it’s an anomaly at this day and age to have this type of thinking. Especially that at this point today, we are actually oriented and focused on recruiting girls to Math, Science, and Engineering. So many of the STEM programs exist to help kids in general, and girls in particular enjoy math and science. Thanks for your post!

    1. That’s true, there is much more of a push for girls in science and engineering now. Though, to be honest, the tone of some of it seems to be, “Don’t listen to the stereotypes! You’re just as good as the boys!” I never picked up on that as a kid (not realizing the stereotype existed), but I see it sometimes now.

  5. From the viewpoint of a guy (and growing up in an uber-conservative community), I never heard this stereotype either. And what’s more, most of my math and science teachers (I would venture an estimation of 95%) have been women–both K-12 and University–and I’ve never batted an eye to that fact!

    From what I’ve read lately, the statistics are showing boys being left behind in these fields now, for many reasons. I’m not saying this is no longer an issue, but I think it is one that could, and should, be let go of.

    (Thanks for the chuckle regarding the uselessness of this subject that you so excelled at!)

    1. I hadn’t heard that we might be swinging the other way now in terms of boys in math and science. Maybe instead of really encouraging girls in the STEM fields, we should be encouraging all children to pursue math and science.

  6. You all almost had me thinking that the “girls aren’t good at math” thing wasn’t a thing! So I looked at the faculty in the math department, and in the A’s and B’s (only had time for a limited sample), the gender balance is not that bad on the face of it: 7 men and 5 women. But when you look at the rank, a different picture emerges: 6 male profs; 5 female instructors; 1 male instructor. So, I looked at Civil Engineering: http://www.cee.vt.edu/faculty-member/

    1. There is definitely a big gap in the number of men vs. women working in the STEM fields, both in academia and industry, and I’m certain that part of it comes from a stereotype that “girls aren’t good at math.” But I think that fewer women are pursuing jobs in those fields for other reasons as well. Part of it is the discrimination that many women face, not because of the “bad at math” stereotype, but just because they’re women in a traditionally men’s field. Part of it is the difficulties women in fields like that face if they decide to have children (which, to a certain extent, goes back to the “traditionally men’s field” thing). Part of it may very well be the lack of female role models, though I think that’s changing. There are a myriad of reasons, and the math stereotype is just one.

  7. The STEM fields aren’t the only ones struggling with diversity. The arts and humanities aren’t perfect either. Case-in-point: this year’s Oscars. Not a single African-American was nominated (for the second straight year, eliciting a boycott by some who were displeased with the Academy’s choices). Adding to that, only one woman has ever won Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow) while only 4 have been nominated in the ceremony’s 88-year history. No African-American has won (only three have been nominated). However, in the last four years, the honor has gone to a Taiwanese director, and two Mexican directors (Alejandro G. Inarritu won twice in a row).

  8. I know that saying because I was told men typically have stronger rational thinking skills because of their brain. I searched online and found there are many articles about gender and brain. Men typically can perform mathematical tasks better than women because men’s “Inferior-Parietal Lobule (IPL)” area in brain is normally larger than women. And the IPL s thought to control mathematical processes.

  9. The thought that girls were not good at math never crossed my mind until I first heard a controversy over this idea made by a Harvard President. My AP Calculus class in high school was half women and half men, and I can tell you the girls performed much better and had more 5 scores on their AP exam than the men. In college, my math tutor for BC calc was a female math major.

    So I’m with you that it was unheard of to me, that is, until institutions of higher education made it appear such. I suspect political and financial motivations at this as well.

  10. Wow! Hot topic here. I would have to agree with Cody on this one. I was unaware of the prominence of this stereotype until I read your blog post. Of the many math teachers/professors I’ve had over the past 20 years or so, I think two have been male. So, I guess if someone asked me to guess which gender is better at math, I would have to say female. Could this be a regional stereotype? Or, being a male, maybe I was honestly just blind to it?

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