There is much talk these days about how American kids are falling behind other kids around the world academically, particularly in the “STEM” subjects (science, technology, engineering and math). These subjects are are incredibly important, as they lead to careers and innovations that will fuel the U.S. economy down the road and they are also among the highest paying careers. And, girls are woefully underrepresented in these subjects. For example, fewer than 20% of college engineering degrees go to women even though women earn nearly 60% of all Bachelors degrees.
That is why I was particularly interested in the TEDxWestVillageWomen talk by Laura Overdeck, founder of Bedtime Math. Laura’s topic was math anxiety and why girls are particularly susceptible to this problem. I anticipated hearing a story about a U.S. educational system that does not encourage girls to do math, as well as a culture that does not foster girls’ confidence in STEM subjects. However, while Laura reinforced that these stories are true, I also learned that it’s the messages that girls hear from adult women around them that affect them the most. And, Laura had some excellent suggestions about how to rectify this.
First, there are many subtle ways that we might communicate math anxiety to young girls. When we dine at a restaurant, who is the person who figures out the tip? Laura asked us to think about how embarrassing (read ’pathetic’) it is that when a group of women meet for lunch, the arrival of the check is often met with the ladies debating about who has to figure out the tip. This aversion to do basic math to compute a tip sends a message to girls that we think math is hard, or even worse, that math is ‘not for us.’ How can we expect girls to engage in math if we don’t demonstrate that it is something females do?
Second, our expectations about math achievement may be higher for boys than for girls. Research among American elementary school teachers – many of whom are women – demonstrates that female teachers are a math-anxious group themselves, and that they expect math will be easier for male than for female students This leads to them demanding higher achievement from the boys than from the girls. Having lower expectations for girls’ math abilities sends them the message that math might be hard for them, or again, not ‘for them.’ And what is true for female teachers is probably true for women in general. We unconsciously expect more from boys than from girls with respect to math achievement, and children live up to these unequal expectations.
Third, similar to our lower expectations for girls’ math achievement, we parents may also subtly push our children towards subjects and activities based on gender bias. As a market researcher, I actually swim in data and love it, but I admit that I would be more likely to encourage my son to do math and science-oriented activities than my daughter. My 1st grade son has already done two science-oriented after-school activities, and I plan on signing him up for chess club next. And while my daughter won’t start kindergarten until next year, I admit that I would probably not have signed her up for “Mad Science” or “Innovations & Concoctions” like I did my son. Fortunately, I have been enlightened before the damage was done, and I will be certain to push her towards STEM activities when she has those opportunities at school.
As a math-oriented female, I thought I was already doing my part to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers by leading by example. But, it turns out that I was harboring the subtle bias that is endemic in our culture, and I need to be more proactive about compensating for these cultural biases. Laura’s speech heightened my awareness, changed my thinking, and also gave me some tools to be a better role model for girls. I will now be sure to tell my daughter about my love of math, have high expectations for her math performance, and I will never EVER shy away from figuring out the tip!