Teaching

Math is Hard and Gender Stereotypes

About 3 years ago my daughter, who was in 2nd grade at the time, was sitting at the kitchen table working on her math homework. I could tell she was frustrated with something, but let her work through it. Instead of asking for help, she looked at me and informed me that she can’t do math because she’s a girl. I was completely flabbergasted. For Christ’s sake, I have a degree in physics and I know she is great at math. Where would she get an idea like that?

I assume this idea was planted in her head from one of the kids in her class. However, the more I think about it, the sadder it is. This little girl was only in second grade and was already seeing those science and math doors slammed in her face. My daughter has an advantage here. I have a first-hand example to show her that girls can be great at math. I set her straight and explained to her what physics is. I wonder though, what’s the fate for those girls who are great at math, but perhaps their mother isn’t? What happens when those girls have the gender stereotype doors slammed in their face?

I read emails from teachers and other communication that’s sent home from my daughter’s school, and I wonder…Why do we consistently tell kids (girls AND boys) that math isn’t easy, math is very hard, math can only be done if you work super hard at it? We continue to reinforce this ridiculous idea that math is so hard, and the kids start to believe it… even if they initially thought it was easy (my daughter being a great example of this). Why do we do this? When we reinforce this idea on TOP of the gender stereotypes that fly around, these girls don’t have a chance at success.

Nobody at my daughter’s school would dream of telling kids that reading is hard. If you can’t read as an adult, you’re considered a loser. However, the elementary teachers (all of them – going back several years) seem to reinforce this “math is hard” idea. Adults joke around about how hard math is. Of course that’s not the intent (and it’s always framed in a more positive way), but the gist of communication coming home is “This math stuff… Argh FRACTIONS… IT’S SO HARD!” 
 
Now that I’m spending more time in high schools in the area, I listen everyday to high school kids say “This math stuff… Argh FRACTIONS… IT’S SO HARD!” Are they merely repeating what has been told to them over the past decade? I think it’s sad. Don’t we want higher proficiency in STEM subjects? If the kids believe it’s so hard (because that’s what they’ve been told over and over by teachers and other adults to make “innocent” jokes), why would they try if they believe they’d only be setting themselves up for failure?
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