Sexism Is Screwing Up Your Daughter's Success in Math Class

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woman writing on chalkboard in a math classIn high school, whilst excelling in English, I abhorred math. It was the bane of my existence. But it wasn't always that way ... My hatred for all things numerical took root in sixth grade pre-algebra, when I had a teacher who would throw erasers at students who got the answers wrong. He also gave preferential treatment to the guys and was a total creeper around girls. In seventh grade, another jerk was strictly interested in calling on guys and took up class time cracking jokes about sports. It's funny, looking back, because that same period of time is the era most studies point to as being the turning point when supposedly girls' performance in math starts to decline. But why?

A new study published in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society found girls are just as good at math as boys. It turns out, the perceived difference in abilities has nothing to do with our biology -- and everything to do with our cultural influences. In other words, the sexist society we grow up in!

Researchers say that girls do better in math when they're being raised in a country where women have more equality, and this, my friends, is a new and important finding. Sure, we have some equality, but we still don't get equal pay for equal work or equal representation in government.

And these disadvantages -- all rooted in underlying sexism -- are taking a toll on how we view girls' interest and abilities in math. Judging from my own experience, it really seems to add up. It feels like our girls are set up to fail from the minute they watch their first TV commercial or read their first magazine that tells them they should be more worried about how pretty they are and if boys like them than how they're doing with their times tables.

As Janet Mertz, senior author of the study explains, it's nurture, not nature that holds women back in math. It's the fact that "we live in a Barbie doll society."

So, by the time they've made it to that hormonally-charged classroom (where they might face a totally sexist teacher, which is of course, a much more obvious roadblock), this self-perception and society perception that they're not cut out to/don't have to/shouldn't try to keep up with the guys (cuz it's not "attractive," ughhh) is already shaping our girls' academic fates. It's so wrong.

I know I'm not naturally inclined to excel in math, but maybe if I hadn't been poisoned by a sexist society that thinks females are naturally underdogs on the subject, perhaps I would have had a fighting chance. Props to these researchers for calling out the truth of the matter, because if I have a daughter someday, I definitely want her to have that chance.

Do you agree with these findings? What's been your own or your daughter's experience in the math classroom?


Image via Amber Dawn Pullin/Flickr

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nonmember avatar Mike M

I've been following news about the gender gap in areas such as math, science, and spatial reasoning since 2006. One of the most interesting findings I've read so far is that women in university-level physics who are given a 15-minute writing assignment which is simply about things that they feel are important to them end up scoring better than men on a standard physics evaluation test which they take after the writing assignment. And they even outscore men when men do the same writing exercise before the physics test. The details about this are at: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/11/25/15-minute-writing-exercise-closes-the-gender-gap-in-university-level-physics/

nonmember avatar blh

Im completely LD at math. I mean I think I have math dyslexia ha. It wasn't because of a bad teacher its just the way I am. So idk.

Kiwis... Kiwismommy19

As a child, I had a similar teacher. But I had no problem speaking up for myself. I'd make sure I got called on even if it meant speaking out. I had no problem pointing out to my 7th grade math teacher that he was totally ignoring the girls in the class while joking with the guys on their wrong answers.

My daughter is only in 1st grade so this hasn't come up yet. But judging by her personality now, I have no doubt she'd be able to handle an asshole teacher on her own.

Sure, in a perfect world, all teachers would be awesome. But the world isn't perfect. Instead, we should just teach our kids to stand up for themselves and not just skate by with an uncaring teacher.

Sidthe Sidthe

I had all female teachers in math so...i never had the problem with sexist teachers. Though I have no doubt I would speak up if they were treating me badly. I had no problem doing it in History class (I was the wrong history teachers WORST nightmare my dad was a history buff so it rubbed off on me) so I would have no problem doing it in Math.

Victo... VictoriaL.

I always hated math, too but for a different reason. My mom is a math teacher and a school everyone thought that I was a math genius because of that. But I was always amazing in English.

PonyC... PonyChaser

So what do they say about the kind of math teacher I had in 7th grade? SHE was built like a linebacker, and the embodiment of evil. Take off this woman's nose, and she was Voldemort. She called us "rocks" (as in, "you're as stupid as a rock"), and the girls were all called "Daisy Mae". If she called you a "plant", it meant that you were an actual life form because you got an equation correct when you did it on the board. I can remember focusing harder on not crying through her class than actually doing the work. And I was NOT one of the kids who was willing to stand up. I was the "goodie two shoes" who thought that whatever came out of a teacher's mouth was gospel.


Regarding sexism... I don't buy it. Not completely, anyway. Example: We have more men in politics than women for two reasons. (1) More men run. (2) When a woman does run? She is mercilessly bashed until she's out of the race. It happened to Hillary (pantsuits, haircuts). Sara Palin ("stupid"). Michelle Bachmann ("crazy") and on and on.


I think it's more that we encourage creativity more in girls than in boys. Do they do these same studies with boys and writing? Arts? Because I'll bet you'll find a similar deficiency there.

Susie19 Susie19

I've personally never really been a math person, but I did notice that I always did better in class if I had a great teacher, and all the past great teachers that I've had have been men.  They were all very helpful and motivating and thanks to them I finished math FOREVER!! Yay! :)

jessi... jessicasmom1

oh DD is a math wiz, hopefully her math teachers will just be a great teacher.

Pat Munyan

Completely the opposite in our family. Both of our daughters excelled in math from Day One. Both graduated valedictorians in their HS classes and took tops honors for math. One went on to major in finance and took her University's top prize in the School of Business. Has an MBA with a specialization in tax and is a senior financial analyst for a national company. Daughter number two majored in math and took the prize as her University's top math graduate. Now has an MA in Educational Measurement and Statistics and is a senior measurement analyst at the National Board of Medical Examiners (they group that certifies physicians). For both of them: they were the first women ever to earn the top marks in their respective universities...the older one is 40, the younger 38.

nonmember avatar Jusstme

If my opinion counts, I really think that the article itself and especially the conclusions drawn are quite sexist. In this day and age, women who do the same job as men, are paid on the same level. If things are left to the Natural laws of supply and demand, you'll actually find that women are paid equally with men. Isn't this same old tired B.S. arguement getting rather dreary?

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