I don’t remember exactly why I joined my middle school math team. I think it was some combination of parental pressure, having a crush on a boy on the team, and the vague sense that as a “smart kid,” it was something I should be doing.
None of these motivations were enough to make me great at math. Good, sure. I was good enough to qualify for the team of four heading to a competition. But once there, I floundered; performing the worst of all my teammates, by far.
Crushed, I gave myself an excuse that proved comforting, though terribly misguided and downright sexist. My teammates were all boys and I was a girl — of course my performance wouldn’t stack up against theirs. It couldn’t be that I was never terribly passionate about math to begin with. It was just about gender, in which case, I did “good enough for a girl.”
Are you cringing right now? I am. If I could travel through time, I’d go slap some sense into my 13-year-old self and say, “Guess what? Being a girl is no excuse … look at the facts!”
A review of more than 300 studies from 1914 to 2011 found that girls earned better grades than boys in every class — including math — in 30 different countries, Time.com reported recently.
“The girls did better in whatever you gave them,” Daniel Voyer, a psychology professor at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, told Time.
There have been studies that found gender gaps in math — with male students performing better — but those relied on standardized test scores instead of school grades. School grades, however, may be a more meaningful measure.
“Tests are more like knowledge: How much do you know? Grades are about how much you know but also how can you work with the material, how can you actually present the material and react to it,” Voyer said.
Looking back, I clearly wasn’t the ideal “mathlete” — but it wasn’t because of my gender. I have to wonder how many truly talented would-be math stars didn’t even bother signing up for the team because they bought into the pervasive stereotype that, as girls, they just couldn’t cut it.
I wish I could say the attitude I (and others) had back then ended with my generation, but it hasn’t.
Research “shows that negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math can indeed measurably lower girls’ test performance. Researchers also believe that stereotypes can lower girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time,” according to a 2010 report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
So what can we do it about it? Well, for one thing, we can emphasize to girls that they are just as capable with cosines and quadratic equations as their male peers.
“When test administrators tell students that girls and boys are equally capable in math, however, the difference in performance essentially disappears,” the AAUW report said.
Emphasizing the real-world applications of math to young women might also help. At a math-focused career day event earlier this month at Penn State, NASA engineer Rachel Murphy stressed the rewards of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers to an audience of more than 200 middle school girls.
“There are a lot of problems out there, and the world needs people to solve them,” she said. “Ladies, we can’t do it without you.”
In other words, ladies, please, go forth and multiply — and add, subtract, divide … Because being “good enough for a girl” isn’t good enough at all.
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