In 1992, Mattel Toys put the first talking Barbie doll on the market. Barbie's first words were, "Math class is tough." Mattel thought they were simply expressing the feelings of most school-age girls. Many parents and teachers, though, thought Barbie should keep her mouth shut. As a result, Barbie stopped talking.
The controversy surrounding Barbie and her statement about math highlights a concern in this country about male-female differences in math and science. Although the gender gap has narrowed over the years, boys continue to outperform girls on standardized tests of math and science achievement. At the same time, girls' attitudes about math and science have become more negative. Many girls feel that they are not good at math and science and say that they do not like these subjects. These trends are troubling because girls' grades in math and science classes are often equal to or better than those of boys. In other words, girls can do math and science. Nevertheless, in high school when students are allowed to choose courses, girls are more likely than boys to opt out of advanced math and science. As a result, girls are often less prepared for certain academic disciplines. This limits both their college major and career choices. The question is: Why do we see these differences?
Why the gender gap?
Until recently, it was believed that male-female differences in math and science were caused by biology. In other words, girls' and boys' brains are different, so they are better suited for different things. The notion is that boys have superior spatial abilities, making them better suited for certain mathematical manipulations. Girls, on the other hand, are supposed to be better at language and writing. Evidence shows that boys do excel in math, and girls appear to do better in verbal-related skills. But are these differences a result of biology, or do other factors play a role?
More recently, researchers have focused on the influence of the social environment on children's math and science achievement. Very early on, boys are given the chance to tinker with toys or objects (for example, building blocks, Legos, racing cars, and simple machines) that involve many of the principles inherent in math and science. Girls often lack these experiences, so they enter math and science classrooms feeling insecure about their abilities. Girls then begin to believe they cannot do math and science as well as boys. This belief is consistent with a stereotype in our culture that defines math and science as male domains. That is, males are better suited for math and science, and math and science are more useful to males than to females. Also, personality traits attributed to mathematicians and scientists are associated more with males. Mathematicians and scientists are often thought to be competitive, achievement-oriented, and not very social.
Parents, teachers, or school counselors who believe these stereotypes are less likely to encourage or support a young girl's decisions to take math and science in high school and beyond. It has been found that when parents believe boys are better at math than girls, they are willing to let their daughters drop out of math class when the going gets tough. With sons, however, the same parents encourage persistence. In the classroom, teachers, often unaware of their own biases, call on boys more, praise boys more for correct answers, and are more likely to ask boys for help in science and math demonstrations. The message girls get is that they are not as good as boys.
Closing the gender gap
In response to the research findings, educators have tried to make math and science accessible, equitable, and exciting to all students. Teachers are now encouraged to use a hands-on approach to teaching math and science in their classrooms. The idea is that students will learn more if teachers give them the chance to do math and science and not just to hear about it. Students will then feel more confident about their abilities and realize that math and science can be fun! Parents, too, have become aware of the need to encourage every child's achievement in math and science. To close the gender gap, though, schools and parents will have to continue their efforts. Here are some ideas.
What parents can do
What child-care providers can do
American Association of University Women. 1992. How schools shortchange girls. Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women.
Chipman, S. F., L. R. Brush, and D. M. Wilson. 1985. Women and mathematics: Balancing the equation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Kelly, A. 1987. Science for girls? Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.