Girls and Math
You may have seen various news outlets recently screaming: STEREOTYPES BROKEN. GIRLS ARE GOOD AT MATH, TOO. Studies in the past, one notes, had shown that girls only perform as well as boys through elementary school. After that, they seemed to fall behind.
My seventh grade math teacher told me this same thing. She had seen plenty of students go through this transformation: female math star in junior high, mediocre problem solver in high school. And the boys: not stellar at basic algebra, but wow, could they do calculus! I believed her, of course. (She had anecdotal evidence!)
Now I know this was nonsense. Girls in that pre-algebra class went on to be the top student in algebra, geometry, and calculus (all years!), become the president of the Math Club, and score in the top percentiles of the nation on AP and SAT tests. [Not that I’m advocating basing your self-worth on a test. I’m just sayin’.]
While I do hope the news articles squish anyone’s ideas about the superiority of men in mathematical ability, I do also want to approach the topic with an open, skeptical mind. A lot of the studies done on gender inequalities can be politically motivated, and understandably biased. For example: one study links poor body image to poor math performance. Girls and boys were put in bathing suits or sweaters and told to take a math test. Girls in bathing suits did poorly compared to both their peers in sweaters and to the boys. Boys showed no difference.
From the press release:
The swimsuit ‘reduced [female] participants to feeling “I am my body,” in effect, that swimsuit becomes you,’ according to the researchers.
What about the fact that girls’ bathing suits are skimpier (making you cold) and more uncomfortable? Boys’ swimsuits are waterproof shorts. Nothing different. It’s almost acceptable to walk around shirtless anyway. Girls’ swimsuits are skintight, waterproof undergarments. They’re not something you wear everyday, unless you’re a gymnast who lives in leotards.
To counteract cultural and media messages that can spur women to obsess over their appearance, Fredrickson suggests that teachers and parents promote young girls’ involvement in sports, music and other activities that promote ‘ability rather than appearance.’
This I support–beauty pageants are dumb wastes of time. But this has nothing to do with math. Let’s counter the body image problem–but let’s not think it’s going to raise math scores. Then we’d have to predict that the already intelligent girls I knew in high school would become even more mathematically intelligent when issues with body image faded. And we all know that’s just freakin’ impossible.