“Research1 shows that boys and girls are able to achieve equally well in math and science at the high school level, yet fewer girls pursue post-secondary studies in STEM subjects, and even fewer continue on to careers in STEM. What would you do to change this?”
This was a question asked of every candidate who interviewed recently for the position of Senior Mathematics and Physics teacher at Trafalgar Castle. Interestingly, the quality of the answers was not determined by the gender of the candidate, nor by the years of teaching experience. It was evident during the interviews that some candidates had thought deeply about the topic of gender and STEM education, offering interesting and thoughtful responses. Others, however, appeared less prepared to tackle the topic.
A question such as, “What do you know about girls and learning?” should not come as a surprise to anyone applying to teach at a girls’ school but inevitably some interviewees are caught off guard and do not have an answer at the ready. (I admit to finding that perplexing.) But I am kind enough to offer a gentle prompt if an otherwise good candidate struggles to answer because, during the course of the subsequent discussion, it often becomes evident that they do have insights about the topic. They have noticed differences and adjusted their teaching accordingly and responsively. They have just never put what they do and why they do it into words before.
Some people may wonder why I care so deeply about girls and mathematics. Aren’t some girls (some people, in fact) simply not meant to pursue a career in math or science? Aren’t some individuals much stronger in the humanities or the arts? Shouldn’t we encourage people to follow their passion?
The answer to all three questions is, yes. Not everyone aspires to or has the ability to be a great mathematician or scientist. And of course, pursuing our passion can lead to more fulfillment in our chosen career. But that does not mean we should allow students to opt out of math – or anything, for that matter – the minute it gets tough.
1. Girls underestimate their abilities in math.
We know from research that girls oftentimes underestimate their abilities in the maths and sciences. (Interestingly, boys overestimate theirs.) When girls see themselves as lacking in ability, they are less likely to push themselves to achieve at a higher level. Students with higher self-efficacy, by comparison, are more likely to see success as within reach, and more open to trying different avenues to success. It is not surprising, therefore, that believing in oneself is important to academic success.
2. Girls have a tendency to give up when faced with a seriously hard math problem. (Boys tend to double down!)
This interesting, but somewhat perturbing finding, highlights how girls can construct the limits of their abilities. When presented with a math problem that was, in fact, beyond the students’ abilities, researchers found that, on average, girls spent less time than boys trying to solve the problem before giving up. And the higher the girl’s IQ, the less amount of time she persevered. Why is that? Girls may be more likely than boys to question their innate abilities when a problem cannot be solved. They tell themselves, “I am not smart enough,” whereas boys will often think, “This question is stupid!”
3. There is value in learning to persevere.
Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset and Angela Duckworth’s research on grit provide important guidance for parents and educators alike. I cannot stress enough the need for parents and teachers to emphasize process over outcome.
When I talk about the importance of perseverance with our girls at the Castle, I always ask if they have ever watched a baby learn to walk. Invariably, all the hands go up. I point out to them how different the world would be if the baby fell down the first time they tried and thought to itself, “Well, that settles it then. I guess I am just not a born walker!” What would happen if that baby refused to get back up and try again, I ask them. This usually elicits a giggle from the girls but the point is taken. Life is not always easy. We do not always succeed the first time. We need to learn to get back up and keep right on going.
4. Girls often gravitate to the humanities.
Girls typically develop verbal skills earlier than boys. This is not to say that there is an innate difference between boys and girls abilities’ in this area. Socialization contributes to many differences in development. But research suggests that this relative strength may contribute to girls being drawn more readily to the humanities. After all, it is only natural that we enjoy doing what we believe we are good at. We persevere more readily when we receive positive feedback such as a good grade on a paper. And when you add in the influence of comments from teachers and parents – “You are a real natural at this” or “You are a born English student” – it is easy to see how an ability becomes a preference that ultimately becomes a belief. In some instances, the belief that she is better at the humanities than at math and science may limit a girl’s interest in pursuing things that do not come as easily.
5. We do not want girls (or boys) to limit post-secondary pathways too soon.
Not every girl (or boy) is going to choose to pursue post-secondary studies in math or science. But when we look at future employment opportunities and growth industries, there is no disputing the fact that changes in technology are disrupting many traditional careers. A quick look at job postings for Amazon, Google or any of the major banks reveals a preponderance of positions that require competency in engineering, computer science or finance. Even media firms and creative agencies are looking for people with skills in data analytics or digital marketing.
While some students know from a very early age what career they want to pursue, the vast majority do not. Keeping options open is important in order to allow students time to explore multiple pathways. We know that students who do not believe they are good at math are likely not going to pursue a career in engineering or aeronautical science. But do these students know the requirements of other programs that may hold interest for them? A budding entrepreneur, for example, needs to know that the majority of business schools require Grade 12 calculus. And a future designer should realize early on that many architecture programs demand Grade 12 calculus, physics and an art portfolio. Even areas such as animation or game design often require study of both the arts and technology. So encouraging exploration while keeping options open is essential.
What can we do:
1. Combat stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s social group (Steele & Aronson, 1995). In the case of girls, the negative stereotype suggests that girls are not good at math. It is exactly the message that came out of Teen Talk Barbie who declared, “Math class is tough.” (Mattel experienced a backlash from educators and women’s groups about the doll’s message to girls, and quickly eliminated that particular phrase from its lexicon.)
Unfortunately, a girl is at risk of stereotype threat even if she believes the stereotype is false. It is the mere presence of the stereotype in her environment that research shows can undermine her performance and cause her to limit her career pathways. So if a girl is surrounded by the message that math is harder for girls than boys, she is more likely to be negatively influenced even if she tries to close her ears to what she hears.
Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, provided this advice to young people: “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations … If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won’t exist because you’ll have already shut it out … You can hear other people’s wisdom, but you’ve got to re-evaluate the world for yourself.” Wise words indeed.
Self-declared Math Guru Vanessa Vakharia would also argue the importance of challenging media and pop culture representations of girls as less intelligent. We invited Vanessa to work with our Grade 8 students at Trafalgar Castle last year, and I can attest to the power of her message. I appreciate also that she throws down the gauntlet and challenges traditionally male-dominated industries to be more open to diversity and more welcoming of young women. She points to #ScientistsWhoSelfie as a way to engage and educate young people through social media about careers in science.
And finally, to all the moms out there: Research shows that the negative impact of stereotype threat is mediated when the mother strongly rejects the belief that girls cannot be good at math. The same mediating effect was not shown for fathers, suggesting the importance of a girl seeing and hearing positive associations about her potential from the most influential woman in her life.
2. Embrace the power of yet.
If you did not watch Carol Dweck’s TED Talk (see point 3 above) on growth mindset and the power of the word “yet,” please do. It is vital that all children, but girls in particular, internalize the concept of, “I do not understand that yet” or “I cannot do that yet.” Banish absolute comments such as, “I will never be able to…” and please, please, please do not allow your daughter to say, “I am just not a math person.” Challenge that narrative with phrases like, “Math sure does not come easy to you. But look how much progress you are making by persevering and [insert strategy here].” The strategy could be attending a math tutorial, working with a tutor, joining a study group, asking questions in class or reviewing previously learned concepts for 10 minutes every night. But whatever you do, allow “yet” to offer the promise of future growth.
3. Praise the struggle.
All you have to do is blast “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus every morning before your daughter heads off to school and your work here is done. All joking aside, the song’s message is important: Life can be hard and dreams may be elusive, but you simply have to keep on going. It is not about how fast you get there. It is the climb.
4. Provide female role models.
You cannot be what you cannot see. That is why young girls need to see themselves reflected in the sciences and math. It does not mean the teacher must be female – we should hire the best teachers regardless of gender – but girls must be exposed to role models and mentors in math, science and technology.
Recent research from the University of Massachusetts points to the importance of female mentors for female engineering students. At the end of first year engineering, 100 per cent of female engineering students assigned a female mentor continued on to second year engineering. By comparison, 18 per cent of female students assigned a male mentor and 11 per cent who had no mentor at all either transferred out of engineering or dropped out of school all together. To quote the authors: “Female mentors promoted aspirations to pursue engineering careers by protecting women’s belonging and confidence.”
5. Believe in them. Even when they do not believe in themselves.
Psychologist and author Dr. Sheri Campbell asserts, “There are seven things every child needs to hear: I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m sorry. I forgive you. I’m listening. This is your responsibility. You have what it takes to succeed.” Share these words with your daughter, remind her that she is a work in progress, and encourage her to celebrate the small moments of growth she experiences every day rather than focusing only on what she perceives as failure.
One Last Ask
Remember Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut who provided that wonderful quote about how to combat stereotype threat? She is an amazing role model for young girls, and I think every girl should hear her message. I would like to ask parents to watch this brief video together with their daughter. Let it be the first of many times you explore female leaders in STEM with your daughter, remembering that she cannot be it if she cannot see it.
1 Despite increasing parity in some fields, including health sciences, women remain underrepresented in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences. See https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0027020