Girls and math

Steps educators can take to ensure the success of female students

In 1992, Teen Talk Barbie proclaimed: “Math class is tough.” After much public outcry, manufacturer Mattel ceased making dolls that said the phrase, but the incident was a symptom of a persistent gender stereotype. Too many girls consider math a “male” subject.

In “Girls’ Attitudes, Self-Expectations, and Performance in Math,” Michelle Maraffi of Drexel University concludes that interest, social mores and relevance of math to career choice all contribute to boys outnumbering girls in upper-level math courses.
So the question for educators is: How do we reverse this stereotype to make sure girls are learning the high-level math skills they need?

Stereotypes about girls’ math skills

Some experts point to a social stigma attached to girls and math: Girls are “supposed” to take “feminine” classes, such as English and social studies, while boys are expected to take more science and math courses. Often, these social expectations are passed on to children by their parents and even their teachers.
  • Mathematician Danica McKellar (the same Danica McKellar who played Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years) is the author of Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. In her book, McKellar recalls an incident from her ninth-grade science class: “After our first test, my science teacher pulled me aside and expressed surprise at my high score, exclaiming how unexpected it was that I would be a good student in science. ‘You just seem so outgoing and you wear such brightly colored earrings. I just didn’t think you would be very smart.’”
  • ATPE Past State President Cindy Chapman has also seen the “math class is tough” stereotype in action. In the high-level math classes she teaches in Whiteface CISD, Chapman says she has noticed boys treating girls as “dumb blondes” and getting upset when girls outperform them. “The boys always feel like they should be outscoring the girls, and if the girls do better than they do, they feel it is because they cheated or got help,” she says.
  • Chapman also says that some of her students’ mothers perpetuate the anti-math stereotype: “Girls hear their mothers talk about not being good at math, and it sticks with them.”
  • In Add-Ventures for Girls: Building Math Confidence, a guide for junior high teachers, Margaret Franklin and other researchers at the University of Nevada note a direct relationship between early confidence in math and later math achievement as well as the decision to enroll in high school math electives. Chapman’s observation: “Once kids fail at something for the first time, they tend to back away from it, and it becomes a trouble spot from then on. If it gets fixed early, good, but in math that seldom happens.”

Five strategies for helping girls succeed in math class

  1. Create lesson plans that incorporate real-life problem-solving scenarios. That’s the premise of Math Doesn’t Suck. Part pep talk, part practice problems, McKellar’s book injects humor and traditionally “female” topics into math. A chapter on converting fractions and mixed numbers to decimals is called “Why Calculators Would Make Terrible Boyfriends”; the section on common denominators is “How Much Do You and Your Best Friend Have in Common?”
  2. Pair girls together for cooperative learning—but do so judiciously. In a single-sex environment, girls might feel more comfortable and encouraged to support one another in their math achievements. “I think they [girls] really look up to girls who do well in math,” Chapman says. However, avoid becoming over-reliant on single-sex groupings. Boys and girls should be taught that both sexes are capable of achieving in math, as they are in all subjects, and that boys and girls should treat one another with respect.
  3. Provide female role models. As a female math teacher, Chapman is a role model for the young women in her classes. Her math achievements help girls see the same potential in themselves. Educators should consider inviting women in math-oriented careers to class to share their stories with all students. Role models might be asked to share information about college readiness or the math courses required for various careers.
  4. Teach girls to persevere through tough problems. “If [students] stick with a problem long enough to understand the solution, then it is no longer something they can’t do, and therefore [they have] no need to hate it,” Chapman says.
  5. Emphasize the intellect to boost confidence. Publicly and privately acknowledge girls’ academic and intellectual accomplishments, not just their effort. “Try to focus on the intellectual aspects of girls’ performance rather than neatness, organizational skills or ‘just trying,’” Franklin writes in Add-Ventures for Girls: Building Math Confidence.