Episode 4 – Math is for Girls!

Today women earn 45% of the undergraduate degrees in mathematics (NSF, 2008a), but women make up only 17% of university faculty in mathematics (NSF, 2008b). What causes this decline?

In this episode we talk about the article Mathletes: Only for boys?


One of the main topics that the article and the supporting research referenced is that of stereotyping. At very early ages, we are exposed to stereotyping – both for girls and boys. In fact, from the moment people know a baby’s sex, they often treat girls and boys differently — and, much of the time, they aren’t even aware of the unconscious gender biases that are driving their behavior. Pink, pretty dresses, stuffed animals, and dolls for girls whereas boys get trucks, puzzles, shape sorters and the like.

Here’s a snippet from a BBC documentary on Gender and they dressed a little girl up like a boy and a little boy up like a girl. The researchers put typical boy toys out and typical girl toys out and allowed strangers to come play with the kids using any toy they wanted. I bet you can guess what they chose to play with each gender!! They even mentioned how interesting it was that all of the adults chose the spatial awareness toys (sorters, blocks, puzzles etc.) for the boys and the girls were given the stuffies and were spoken to a lot more.

Mathematics and science are stereotyped as male domains (Fennema & Sherman, 1977; Hyde, Fennema, Ryan, Frost, & Hopp, 1990b, Nosek, et al, 2009). Stereotypes about female inferiority in mathematics are prominent among children and adolescents, parents, and teachers. Although children may view boys and girls as being equal in mathematical ability, they nonetheless view adult men as being better at mathematics than adult women (Steele, 2003).

Boys and girls are getting messages from somewhere…it might be subtle, subconscious, or invisible, but the messages are clearly getting delivered. Here’s an example of invisible: In one study, fathers estimated their sons’ mathematical “IQ” at 110 on average, and their daughters’ at 98; mothers estimated 110 for sons and 104 for daughters (Furnham et al., 2002; see also Frome & Eccles, 1998).

Teachers, too, tend to stereotype mathematics as a male domain. In particular, they overrate boys’ ability relative to girls’ (Li, 1999; but see Helwig, Anderson, & Tindal, 2001).


Teachers can begin by acknowledging stereotypes and biases and then begin the process of dispelling them.

First, these findings call into question current trends toward single-sex math classrooms. Advocates of single-sex education base their argument in part on the assumption that girls lag behind boys in mathematics performance and need to be in a protected, all-girls environment to be able to learn math (e.g., Streitmatter, 1999). The data, however, show that girls are performing as well as boys in mathematics, based on 242 separate studies (Study 1) and 4 large, well-sampled national U. S. data sets (Study 2). The great majority of these girls and boys did their learning in coeducational classrooms. Thus, the argument that girls’ mathematics performance suffers in gender-integrated classrooms simply is not supported by the data.

There is also evidence that we need an increased focus on problem-solving at the DOK 3 and 4 level. Girls are on par with boys with DOK 1-type questions, but there seems to be a bit of a gap in the problem-solving skills. Teachers can address this head on in the classroom by introducing unique problems that are low-floor, high-ceiling.

Also teachers should help all students – boys and girls- see that math is fun. Elham Kazemi, associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the UW College of Education says that math is “alive, joyful and creative. If girls get more messages that math is imaginative, they might identify with it more,” She goes on and says “It’s easy for people to express dislike for math, and to say ‘I’m just not a math person,’ but people do lots of math outside of class.” I think teachers don’t always bring this fun to the classroom because their confidence in the contextual understanding is weak (but that is a discussion for another day on credentialing programs!)

Parents can help kids’ interest in math too, by pointing out the mathematics of daily life, such as in cooking, shopping, saving money toward a goal and playing board games. Bedtime Math is a great example of this. Emphasizing persistence and problem solving—rather than speed and competition—and using open-ended math problems with different solutions and different ways of thinking about each problem could help girls with math.