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