Fashionable to be Dumb


For much of my life, I’ve been obsessed with gender and mathematics. As a kid I loved when my dad made up math games and riddles, challenging me to come up with solutions. But it was clear to me that not all kids and certainly not all girls shared my love for mathematics. Decades later, the aversion for mathematics that I saw among my girlfriends is replicated in new generations. Already in early grades, girls more often dislike math even when they perform on par with boys. When they grow up, they don’t go into mathematics careers as often as their male peers. As a result, we have fewer women in finance, business, and STEM fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Precisely the fields where the greatest opportunities are in today’s technology based society.


Why is it so hard for us to instill the love for mathematics in our girls?  Cultural norms contribute and shape children’s self-definitions, leading girls to assimilate the stereotype that mathematics is not for them. These norms are clearly so socially ingrained that they are hard to change. In several studies parents have stated that their sons are better than their daughters in mathematics, even when this was not the case. Even girls of enlightened parents will get the anti-math message through media, entertainment, clothing and toys.

One would think that the huge backlash against the talking Barbie in the 1990s – who said phrases such as “Math class is tough” – would make corporations more careful. Yet, even today we see similar anti-math messages promoted in some products that target girls.  A few years back, the kids’ apparel retailer The Children’s Place, produced a t-shirt, listing girls’ favorite subjects as shopping, music and dancing, but not math because “well, nobody’s perfect.” The merchandise company David & Goliath marketed a similar shirt that in pink letters declared “I’m too pretty to do math.” These types of messages tell our girls that it’s an achievement to be bad at math. Or, like one commentator put it, they make it fashionable to be dumb.

Stereotypes such as these are not merely annoying, they are self-fulfilling. A cross-cultural study in 36 countries led by a researcher from the University of Virginia (Nosek, B. et al., 2009) found that gender science-stereotypes predict girls’ math and science achievement. The American Psychological Association exposes research that shows how high achieving female students perform worse than their male peers on a mathematics test by simply telling them that girls tend to perform worse than boys on the test. When female students were not told anything about gender differences, or when they were told that the test tends to produce the same scores for both genders, girls scored equal to boys.

Our girls clearly get the message. So perhaps we should not be surprised when they grow up to believe that mathematics is a field where they don’t belong. This sense of not belonging in mathematics starts early. My nine-year old recently demanded to drop out of chess class. “Mom, girls don’t play chess,” she explained. Knowing how much she loves the game and how chess has been directly linked to the development of mathematic problem solving skills, I took on the lobbying role and managed to convince some other parents to enroll their little girls. As parents and educators we can’t let gender stereotypes win.  Mathematics is simply too important, and too fun, to be kept from half the population.

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