Friday, April 13, 2012

Because Girls Can't Do Math

Can girls do math as well as boys?  Deep down inside, a lot of girls, parents, and teachers still don't think so.  A recent study by Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Melissa Humphries at the University of Texas at Austin found that high school teachers rated the ability of white female math students as lower than that of white male students with comparable test scores and grades.  In the study of 15,000 students, teachers were more likely to rate courses as being "too hard" for the girls enrolled in them.

Internalized gender stereotypes about who can and should do math develop early - as early as second grade, according to a study from the University of Washington.  In the study, 247 children worked at a computer to sort boys' names, girls' names, and math or reading-associated words.  They were quicker at their task when asked to associate boys' names with math words than when asked to associate those same math words with girls' names, indicating an implicit sense that girls and math just don't belong together.

Where do these stereotypes come from? It turns out that young girls are pretty good at picking up the beliefs around them. One study has shown that when female elementary teachers are anxious about math, their female students quickly internalize the belief that math is not for girls. As girls incorporate that belief, their achievement starts to lag.

But even when girls do well in elementary school math, it's true they have trouble keeping up in high school, isn't it?

Well, no, it's not. In 2008, Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin led a team studying the SAT and grade 4-10 math test results of 7 million US students.  Whether they looked at average scores, scores of the most gifted students, or ability to solve complex problems, they found no significant differences between boys' and girls' achievement.  The one place where boys outscore girls is on the math SAT, but this can be explained by sampling bias.  Only kids who mean to go to college take the SAT, and these days that means more girls than boys take the test.  The larger sample of girls dips more deeply into the achievement spectrum, bringing down average scores.  At the same time, nearly half of all bachelor's degrees in mathematics go to women.

The persistent, often unconscious belief that girls just don't measure up in math inspired Todd Bearson, middle school math teacher and composer, to write a satirical song called "Because Girls Can't Do Math."  It's the first song in the Lost in Lexicon musical now under construction.  Here's a sampling of the lyrics:

The female brain is a delicate flowerWhen exposed to math, it wilts and cowersThe way that they think means they don’t have the powerTo solve the kind of higher mindProblems we endure Because Girls…Can’t do math
 Explaining numbers to girls is a waste like no otherWhy not teach a camel to sing?It can’t be done – why do such a thing? Women have a harder time with logicAll their emotions just get in their wayAnd they haven’t a shot at an abstract thoughtTo let them start would mock the artAnd lead us all astray.

But don't worry, it gets better when the girls strike back!  If you'd like an mp3 of the song and a copy of the lyrics with brief notes about the women mathematicians mentioned, send a note to with the title line, "Send Song." You'll enjoy it.

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