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.

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!


  1. Joy Wang
    August 4, 2008 at 3:24 pm —

    Beauty pageants are stupid, useless, and a waste of time, money, and other resources that should be put to better use. End of story

    I think that the ‘girls are innately terrible at math’ thing is, quite frankly, a bunch of ****. One of my best friends is top of her math class, and I’m pretty damn good with math, at least, I’d like to think (note to self: must work on humility). I do, however, recognize that there is a deplorable lack of girls taking harder and higher-level courses, not from any lack of ability to do so, but because of social pressures, real or perceived. Girls are not “supposed” to be interested in math or science. They’re not “supposed” to outperform their male peers on tests and exams. Why? Because they’re girls. From the perspective of a teenage girl-nerd, it seems less socially acceptable to be good at math and science than it is to be good at English, social studies/history, and the arts, because it’s what girls are supposed to be good at. If you excel in math and science as a girl, you get a lot of “OMGZZZ!!! UR a GIRL and u can do proofs/ace ur science class???” It’s an idea that a lot of girls have drilled into them when they’re younger: you’re supposed to be the stay-home mom, or maybe become a secretary or teacher or HR dept. employee, but not a scientist or engineer or software programmer or doctor. That’s what the boys are supposed to do. And therefore, many girls feel no need to work hard in math or science. Thankfully, my mom’s in science (radiology, physics, some engineering, at a hospital) so I never grew up in a family with that sort of mindset. Maybe I’m oversimplifying the problem, but that’s how I see it.

  2. August 4, 2008 at 3:43 pm —

    Joy, I censored one word of your post. But you’ll never know which one, since I, you know, censored it. 🙂

    Just a heads up, avoiding the curses will help your comments get through without moderation.

  3. vreify
    August 4, 2008 at 3:55 pm —

    “And therefore, many girls feel no need to work hard in math or science.”

    Classes in college are challenging, so I thought that having to work hard in math or science classes meant I was losing my ability. Because I was a girl.

    I didn’t realize all the other boys had to work hard, too. After realizing this, I still worked doubly hard in those classes because I was a girl. But it was because I knew I could show up the boys.

    Teenage girl-nerds (TGNs) kick ass. Seriously.

  4. Dread Polack
    August 4, 2008 at 4:20 pm —

    I graduated in ’98 and I think half of my calculus class was female. We were too busy staring vacantly at the white board to worry about whether the girls or boys did better.

    And, I think beauty pageants are a barbaric and just plain dumb activity. I’m proud to have been saying that since middle school.

    Side-note: the swim suits we had to wear in high school were provided for us, and were extremely awkward and revealing for everyone. We didn’t have “trunks”. They covered as much as a pair of tighty-whiteys.

    And I’ll mention the same thing I mentioned over on “other skepchick” – while the math gap has closed, an even bigger reading gap has apparently opened. Boys are consistently scoring very poorly in reading when compared to girls. Anyone know why this is happening? Why would boys be consciously or unconsciously be steered away from reading?

  5. August 4, 2008 at 9:21 pm —

    Because reading leads to thinking, and we can’t have that, now, can we?

    Also, smart chicks are super-sexy. We should encourage girls to excel at math and science because then they will grow up into sexy smart chicks, which can only make the world a better place.

  6. Joy Wang
    August 5, 2008 at 8:27 am —

    Ok, sorry Rebecca.

    Our school’s math classes seem depressingly male-dominant. I’m betting five girls tops in this coming school year’s Analysis/Pre-Calc class (yes, I’m a pessimist).

    About the reading gap: I dunno, it’s much less obvious at the middle/high school level than the math gap, but now that I think of it, boys don’t seem to do as well in English as girls. I always thought that it was because the guys at my school are mostly really lazy and don’t bother to do anything(including actually attending class, or studying, or actually staying awake during tests), rather than the fact that they consistently perform lower in English. I can’t think of any pressures on boys to turn away from reading, except for maybe that it’s “a girls’ thing”, or maybe it’s not cool to like reading? Some of the English teachers at are school are diabolically evil to all students (shifting goalposts, anyone?), but that can’t exactly account for a nationwide trend, unless there’s some Association of Evil English Teachers (AEET) that terrorizes students in classrooms across America. In all seriousness, I can’t think of a reason why.

    Rystefn: You might be on to something with the thinking thing. Seriously. Sometimes I have to wonder…

  7. Dread Polack
    August 5, 2008 at 8:55 am —

    I don’t remember a reading gap when I was in school, so I have to take the word of the people reporting it.

    I heard a show on our local (Minnesota) Public Radio with a guy who wrote a book about how boys are losing interest in school. They’re consistently scoring lower than girls in just about all subjects now, they’re dropping out, and they’re getting detention more. Women outnumber men in college, especially in graduate programs. Medical programs are apparently a majority female now.

    I admit to being a pretty big slacker. I got pretty good grades in school, but didn’t bother with college, and I work in a warehouse. There was a LOT of encouragement for girls to achieve when I was in school, and not so much for us boys. At least, that’s what I remember, but if things are as bad as this author says they are, it’s a lot more dramatic than I would have guessed.

    I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t have kids, but it’s something I’m following.

  8. vreify
    August 5, 2008 at 11:07 am —

    I’ve read in some places that education has been more tailored to girls–they learn somewhat different from boys. This may also be true because elementary school teachers tend to be women, who may also skew towards a “girl-centered” classroom.

    I honestly don’t know, though. Why does this problem persist through high school, college, and graduate school? Do male role models put less emphasis on education? Does learning seem interesting, entertaining, or engaging to them?

    Anyway, I’d like to see where they found out that boys are consistently scoring lower than girls in almost all subjects. Seems like a real problem.

  9. Nador
    August 5, 2008 at 7:52 pm —

    On girls and math.

    Well, first of all one can see lot of endless debate on whether there is a bias against women in math and physics, since the number of women in these fields are significantly low. All scientific fields used to be dominated by men, and in some of them the gender gap is shrinking much faster than in others. This phenomenon obviously raises the attention of those who are keen on gender ratio. So fields like mathematics, physics and computer science are targets for everyone who wants to prove their sexist* ideology (or just want some comforting “enemy bashing”).

    So why on earth would a sane man contribute to such a debate? Well, normally I don’t. But I hope You are worth a short comment. I am not going to discuss whether there is any kind of bias at any fields. What I would like to do is to emphasize that the average value is far not enough to describe an ensemble.

    The previously mentioned phenomenon is not necessarily the consequence of bias even if there is no difference between the average ability of men and women at math. If men or women have a higher variance of aptitude of math, then the higher requirements we impose the higher ratio of the group with greater variance will be the result. As far as I can judge, the higher variance of human males is much less debated as the average values, so one can expect more dumb and more smart among males. As the previously mentioned fields are definitely demanding on mathematical aptitude, one should be careful before claiming a bias against women.

    A more detailed piece of writing on the issue can be found here:

    * sexist like gender related. (but not excluding “common” sexist)

  10. vreify
    August 5, 2008 at 9:59 pm —


    I’m aware of the distribution argument, and I appreciate that you point it out. But as the piece you linked says, the differences in the distribution is only revealed in very demanding positions–the author even mentions that in a high school math class, there should barely be a male majority. And any difference in effort on the part of the males or females could very well change this fact. At this level, averages are pretty good descriptors of the actual reality.

    This does not change the fact that biases against women still exist. Why else would so many girls have been told that they were not going to do as well in math? Even at the most demanding levels, women who can do just as well as men do exist. They should not be discouraged simply because they are women. They may not have many female peers, but they are brilliant mathematicians in their own right, and should be recognized as such.

  11. Nador
    August 6, 2008 at 6:46 am —

    @ verify

    Well, the first paragraph of your post deals with the diminishing output of girls at higher levels. I know that you only wrote about high school that hardly measures as high demand, but I think the phenomenon is somewhat similar. And yes, there should not be much difference at high school, and there is no significant difference. But I though the main question was why girls abandon math intensive carriers later despite being similarly good at high school.
    I am not aware of the situation in the US, but I have never heard any teachers at my elementary or secondary school saying that girls should be worse at math. I know that is just anecdotal evidence, which is also from another country. So, I am sorry for American girls being told that they are bad at math, but the gender gap at mathematically demanding fields is quite similar in countries where there is much less bias (? it is just an assumption, but I would be surprised if there were any reliable data on it).

    Besides, once I had a look at a 7th grade math SAP test and I concluded that it is a miracle that there are outstanding American mathematicians. None of the tasks required any kind of creativity, just mechanical repetition of a well known task. What’s more, there were many tasks of same type in a (particular) test that is just ridiculously useless, except for the case if one would like to measure the frequency of making calculation mistakes. So I am not convinced that such a test would measure mathematical aptitude.
    I am curious how one could measure the impact of telling one that the group he/she belongs to tend to cope less with a certain problem. I mean I am not convinced that it would play a great role (I am not talking about hard discouragement, like you will never succeed because you are (fe)male, but just telling there are some general trends).

    Some anecdotal stuff, just to trigger thinking about:
    1) I could see a general assumption that girls are better at (foreign) languages while being at secondary school. Still, the best student at English and German was a boy, and I definitely could not see any impact on his results due to this bias.
    2) Most math teachers in high schools are women (is this so in the US as well?). Why do we assume they are so self loathing that they would discourage girls to follow the path they did? Or are teachers so much disrespected that the very possibility of dealing with something related to their job is frightening?

    Finally: I am just not convinced that the main reason for these things is bias. There is some bias, no doubt, but its impact should be evaluated – so far we can only guess. If you happen to know some relevant study to evaluate the impact of bias (excluding other causes, which is really difficult), don’t conceal it :). There are many studies on the topic, but unfortunately most are pure junk.

  12. Nador
    August 6, 2008 at 7:07 am —

    Sorry for misspelling your name, vreify.

  13. Joy Wang
    August 6, 2008 at 8:46 am —

    Nador: I think the male/female math teacher ratio is just about 1:1 in our school (but our math department chairperson is a woman; she’s the AP Calculus BC teacher too.)

    Standardized tests are terrible measures of anyone’s mathematical capability. We have the PSSAs (Pennsylvania State Standardized Assessment, or something like that), and it’s exactly as described. Boring, repetitious, rote memorization style questions. Actual classroom tests and quizzes are pretty challenging, though.

    I think the discouragement for girls comes not so much from teachers (on the contrary, many teachers encourage girls to challenge themselves in math), but from peers and parents, and such, not necessarily in the form of “You’re a girl, you can’t do math” (I’d kick any parent that told their kids that. Really), but a more subtle and possibly unconscious steering towards “easier” fields. Creations like Barbie and Bratz as well as popular culture (can you think of an instance where girls being into math was considered cool? Mean Girls doesn’t quite count, I don’t think) don’t really help either. Also, a girl who does well in high school math gets gawked at, a lot, and socially, being good at math opens up a gap between you and your peers (I’ve had that problem before) that makes most people feel distinctly uncomfortable. I rambled a bit. Sorry

  14. vreify
    August 6, 2008 at 9:31 am —

    The first paragraph of my post is about studies of children from 2nd to 11th grades (I guess I didn’t mention it, but it’s in the links). This is nowhere near PhD level.

    Bias is probably responsible for some of the gap–not all of it. I think it is responsible for the discouragement of some girls, who then find that another field of study is more socially acceptable. Even if these girls excelled in high school, they may not want to continue on in college, where the bias becomes even stronger (presumably because then it is true that fewer females are excellent mathematicians).

    All the men in these college level classes are not the best of the best, either–statistically, many of them must be at the same skill level as the women. But experiencing unrelenting bias as a girl, then as a young woman, and then as a young woman attempting to make a career in mathematics is certainly discouraging.

    I wasn’t arguing that bias is the main reason that there are fewer women at the highest levels of mathematics. Frankly, I would be very skeptical that this was true. I would just like to point out that bias should not impede a woman’s path to get to the top, if she is skilled enough to get there.

    And your anecdote about the boy excelling at language is akin to mine about the girls who excelled in math. One of my best friends–a female–was the top of our math class, every single year. But just because these two cases are not impeded by bias does not mean that every case is like that.

    In high school, all of my math teachers were male. (On the lower track, there was one female teacher.)

  15. Nador
    August 6, 2008 at 10:57 am —

    to vreify

    I think you are talking about the following article: Janet Hyde et al.: Gender similarities characterize math performance. Well, I do not have access to that so I can hardly discuss that. As far as reviews by journalists are concerned I tend to be very skeptical. I have developed a definite mistrust toward journalists.

    But left without any better, here is a quote from sciencenow:

    “The study’s most disturbing finding, the authors say, is that neither boys nor girls get many tough math questions on state tests now required to measure a school district’s progress under the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law. Using a four-level rating scale, with level one being easiest, the authors said that they found no challenging level-three or -four questions on most state tests. The authors worry that means that teachers may start dropping harder math from their curriculums, because “more teachers are gearing their instruction to the test.””

    So I tend to believe that they have measured the diligence of students rather than their mathematical aptitude. And it is also interesting, why the 12th grade is missing which is just before college or university.

    Well, so we have at least two anecdotal evidence for people not affected by bias. I am still curious of the impact of bias. But anyway, we can agree that bias should not hinder anyone.

    About my teachers: in secondary school except for one year I had female math teachers. At university ca. 70% of my math teachers were (are) males. So it is definitely different from the US then.

    Joy Wang:

    Well, pop culture is really not my field, so I have no idea what is cool at the moment. But I can certainly tell, that math and physics have never been popular irrespectively to gender (at least at my school). Being good at these topics gained me some respect due to other’s need of a copy of my homework, but never gained any popularity. But I never craved popularity so it did not turned me off. I know that most people are much more motivated to fit in their social environment, thus might think they can not afford being good at such unpopular, “heretic” things.
    I usually suspected that the root of this unpopularity is a kind of jealousy mixed with the inconvenience of breaking the consensus of hating these subjects (and thus violating the group – that’s why I used heretic).
    Do you suggest that girls tend to be more keen on not being outcast? Or the pressure is higher on girls?
    My personal experience is that female undergrad. math and physics students tend to cope much better with social relations than males. I do not know any of them complaining about formerly being outcast by their classmates [well, that does not mean much, they rarely complain], while I know some really nerdy guys who were outcast. [neither do they tend to complain, but they do not conceal it either].
    Then why would outcast males make it to the university and females not?

    PS: The testicles of the Mandelbrot set are rather huge. Or is it just a case of micropenis? Or am I misunderstanding your avatar and nickname?

  16. August 6, 2008 at 12:16 pm —

    Some salient points:

    0. The “men have a larger variance” argument is irrelevant for the question of building a scientifically and mathematically literate society. We care about the mean, for the simple reason that most people live near there.

    1. It’s also irrelevant for gender imbalance in the sciences.

    1A. Mathematical aptitude is not a one-dimensional quantity, different areas of mathematics rely on different skills, and many ideas can be approached in a variety of ways using a variety of thinking styles. Empirically, gender differences (with whatever metric you’re trying to use) depend upon age and context of measurement, too.

    1B. If you do try to collapse “math skills” down to a single dimension, science doesn’t draw from just the extreme upper tail of that distribution.

    1C. Differences between nations can be as large or larger than differences between male and female within the United States. Oh, and in some countries, the variance among girls is larger than that among boys.

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