It’s a little shocking when you hear a gap-toothed 6-year-old girl say, “I’m bad at math!”
Tragically, it’s not uncommon for girls as young as 1st or 2nd grade to start saying they’re no good at math. By 4th grade, most of her peers will be saying the same thing.
But here’s the crazy part: she will continue to believe she’s bad at math even if her math scores are among the highest in the class.
Why do so many girls become afraid—almost panicky—at the thought of making a mistake? Why is it so hard for her to try again when she gets a problem wrong?
It turns out, girls and boys respond very differently to math challenges.
When a boy is doing well he says, “I’m pretty good at math.” If he fails, he says it’s because he didn’t try hard enough.
A girl, on the other hand, will say she did well because she studied hard, but if she fails she says, “I’m bad at math.”
A staggering 37% of women in the United States say they are bad at math—almost twice the number of men (21%). Women are also significantly more likely than men to report feeling frustrated, anxious, or inadequate when they have to do math.
The label of “bad at math” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Girls avoid math and fall further behind, choose a non-math career, and continue to feel anxious about math far into adulthood.
What makes girls decide they are bad at math, even when their scores are no different from the boys’? Why do so few girls pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?
Most importantly, what can we do to help our girls grow into strong women who feel confident in math?
1. The “Girls Are Bad At Math” Stereotype
Are boys better than girls at math? Studies show that both men and women think so–even if the research itself doesn’t back that up.
Those who say boys are better at math point to research findings that show boys far outnumber girls on the high end of the bell curve.
What no-one mentions is that boys also outnumber girls on the LOW end of the bell curve (boys are far more likely than girls to get nearly all the answers wrong). So it would seem that boys are both better and worse at math.
Another finding that messes with the “girls are worse in math” idea is that many countries show no difference at all between boys’ and girls’ math scores. In some countries (Iceland, Qatar, Thailand, and Jordan) girls do much better than the boys in math.
It seems the gender gap for math is not biological, but cultural.
When society expects girls to do poorly in math, every mistake she makes seems to “prove” what everyone else knows: that she can’t do math.
This makes girls ultra-sensitive about getting answers wrong; she sees it as proof that she can’t do it, and stops trying.
Girls and boys have equal potential to excel in math, but if we tell girls they aren’t good at math, they won’t be.
What You Can Do: Don’t compare her ability to boys’. Even telling her “You’re just as good/better than the boys in math” implies that boys are usually better at it.
2. Women In The Media
Girls looking for smart girl role models in the media have their work cut out for them.
To start with, she’ll see far fewer women than men. The men she sees will have more than twice as many speaking parts (68.5% men to 31.5% women). Even in cartoons, males outnumber females by more than 2 to 1.
Most of the girls will be pretty and dumb, and are basically in the film to help out the men. There will be the occasional smart girl, who will be geeky and socially awkward.
When she sees doctors, scientists, mathematicians and computer programmers on TV, they will almost always be men.
Given the options, many girls choose NOT to be the smart girl who’s good at math. She doesn’t want to be the weirdo who doesn’t fit in, and probably can’t picture herself in a male-dominated math or science field anyway.
So girls choose to be pretty, popular, and bad at math.
They don’t know that strong, smart, and beautiful is an option.
What You Can Do: Talk about the roles of women in girls in the media. Are smart girls always geeky and awkward? Why do so many films show the boy rescuing the girl? Media messages lose their power when we examine how we feel about them.
3. Toys For Girls And Boys
Browse through the boys’ aisle of a toy store and you’ll find action figures, superheroes, construction sets and science toys. Turn into the “pink aisle” and you will find yourself surrounded by Barbies, princesses, fashion, and dress-up.
Remember talking Barbie? Push a button and she says, “Math class is tough!” and “Do you have a crush on anyone?”
Toys are kids’ rehearsal for being a grown-up, and they send a strong message to girls: boys are the builders, the scientists, the superheroes, while girls are meant to be sweet and pretty.
If girls are to imagine themselves in an identity beyond pink and pretty, it needs to start with her kids’ world of toys.
What you can do: Show her that science and engineering are for girls with GoldieBlox, Mighty Makers, or spa science kits. Visit Mindware for creative kits and thinking games, and Amightygirl.com for the best toys, movies, and books available for smart, strong girls.
4. Moms Saying They’re Bad At Math
Be honest, moms, have you ever said this to your girls?
- “I’m bad at math.”
- “A lot of girls have a hard time with math.”
- “It’s ok, not everyone is a math person. You have other things you’re good at.”
Moms are just trying to make their girls feel better. They empathize with their daughters: “I was bad at math too. You’re like me that way.”
Moms might also feel some strong emotions watching their daughters struggle with math, when it brings back painful memories from their own experience in school.
But connecting with girls over a shared struggle in math is one of the worst things a mom can do.
Daughters are particularly likely to internalize messages from their mother, and when moms say things like this they unwittingly reinforce the bad at math stereotype and pass it along to their girls.
Girls want to be like their moms. When she hears mom say she was never good at math, it tells her she doesn’t have to be good at math either.
It lowers the bar; if she believes she’s naturally bad at math, she doesn’t have to try as hard. And because it’s a connection with mom, she might even resist changing the bad-at-math label.
What You Can Do: Don’t panic when homework looks different than you remember. Tell her that you’re learning, too. Instead of telling your girls you were (or are) bad at math, share your story in a way that sets her up to succeed:
- “The way I was taught in school didn’t work for me. I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.”
- “My teacher made me feel like I couldn’t learn math. Now I know that wasn’t true, and I wish I hadn’t listened to him.”
- “I didn’t like math, so I stopped trying. You will go farther than I did, because I know you won’t give up.”
5. Teachers Who Believe Girls Are Worse In Math
I am always stunned when I hear the stories…
…The woman who has spent her whole life believing she is bad at math, because her teacher in 7th grade told her so.
…Or the well-meaning teacher who tried to break the news gently: “Math is not for you, but don’t worry—there are lots of other things you’re good at.”
…The parent-teacher conference where the teacher gushes, “Your daughter is even better at math than the boys!” (Can you spot the hidden message there?)
Whether harsh or well-intentioned, all of these scenarios have one thing in common: they expect less from the girls in math.
A teacher’s words carry tremendous weight, and can make or break a child’s success in math.
One study found that if a female teacher shows that she is uncomfortable with math, by the end of the school year the girls in her class will believe that they, too, are bad at math.
Some teachers come right out and say that girls are worse in math–or that your child will never be good at math.
More often, teachers unconsciously treat their students differently based on the belief that boys are better than girls in math. These biases start as early as kindergarten.
What You Can Do: Teachers–especially women teachers–have a lot of power to influence how girls feel about math. Always speak positively about math and let girls know you are confident that they can succeed if they work hard at it.
You can also help girls expand their vision of the careers available to them by challenging the all-male stereotypes in math and science. Watch the Video: Redraw the Balance
6. Thinking Math Smarts Are Genetic
I recently asked a fourth grade girl why she thinks she is bad at math, and she said, “Because if I try something and I can’t do it, or I can’t do it fast, then I know I’m not good at it. Someone who is good at math could do it.”
We think we are naturally good at some things and naturally bad at others, and no amount of effort will be able to change that.
Studies have shown that this belief is false—and dangerous. When children think they can’t change how smart they are, they give up easily and think their mistakes are proof that they can’t do it.
Image from KatherineLynas.com
When kids stop trying, they stop learning—creating a self-fulfilling prophecy as their grades drop and math becomes more and more confusing.
But Stanford professor Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, says that intelligence continues to grow as we learn new things.
When a girl discovers she can make herself smarter by solving challenging problems, she stops worrying about whether she is smart enough, and can turn her energies to wrestling with the problem at hand.
Her persistence pays off with success, understanding, and the confidence to keep trying. Best of all, she proves that girls can be good at math.
What You Can Do: Don’t say, “You’re so smart!” This kind of praise actually makes her more anxious because she feels she must get all the answers right to seem smart. Instead, praise her for working hard: “You studied hard and you got an A!”
7. Protecting Girls From Failure
It seems innocent enough—offering girls a hand up, an extra word of advice, a little extra cushioning or help when she gets stuck.
We jump more quickly to help girls than we do boys. We are more likely to intervene so they don’t get hurt, and are always ready to help–even when she hasn’t asked for it.
Watch the Video: Inspire Her Mind
We are more likely to let boys get into mischief or try something a little dangerous. But we have a knee-jerk reaction against letting a girl get scraped up, look like a mess, or even hand in homework with wrong answers.
Unfortunately, every time we jump in to smooth the way, we are sending the message that we don’t believe she can do it on her own.
It undermines her confidence, and she doesn’t learn how to fail.
She becomes so used to getting it right the first time around, that anything below perfection is a terrible blow. Mistakes feel like failures. Failure feels like the end of the world.
Girls need space to fall down, mess up, get dirty. They need to learn that failure and mistakes are a normal part of learning, and that they’ll be ok.
They need to explore and do stuff on their own without our help or perfectionistic meddling. She deserves the satisfaction of a project done 100% on her own.
It’s hard to watch your child struggle and mess up, but it’s much harder to see her grow into a young woman who is terrified of not being perfect, and who chooses not to take risks in life because she thinks she might fail.
What You Can Do: Challenge her to try something new or a little scary, and praise her for being brave. Don’t sit next to her while she does homework. Next time you automatically offer support, ask yourself, Does she really need my help?
8. Making It Cool To Be Bad At Math
“I am SOOO bad at math!” says one woman. Her friend, a little smugly, says, “Oh me too, I SUCK at math!”
It’s like a bad-at-math club, a competition to see who is the most pathetic with numbers. Can’t figure out how much tip to leave? Cue laughter and rueful shakes of the head as the ladies bond over how hopeless they are with math.
This would never happen with reading. Can you imagine it? “Hey, can someone read me this menu because seriously, I SUCK at reading!” “Oh yeah, me too, reading is the WORST!”
It may feel like harmless banter, and maybe it’s a way to make ourselves feel better if we were never comfortable with math, but acting like incompetence in math is funny or cool is not doing our girls any favors.
What girls hear is that women really don’t need math, and that being bad at math is kind of funny. We’ve made it acceptable, and even fashionable, to be bad at math.
For the sake of our girls, it’s time to stop.
If we want girls to be skilled and confident, then we need to quit the math banter and say what really needs to be said: “I can’t figure out this bill. I wish I had tried harder, and learned those skills when I was a kid.”
What You Can Do: Don’t joke about being bad at math. If you struggled with math, tell your daughter it will be different for her because she will stick with it and learn it. Be the one who figures out the tip–even if you have to use an app to do it!
9. Real Girls Don’t Do Math
The long and the short of it is that girls think math is for boys.
Many girls actually do feel smart and confident and like being that way, but then they get the message that if you’re too smart, you scare the boys away. “Boys want to be smarter than you,” they say with pre-teen wisdom.
Girls reject math because it doesn’t fit with their picture of the kind of girl that boys like.
We need to paint a different picture for girls–one with inspiring women, exciting careers, opportunities to change the world.
We need to help her imagine a better kind of relationship, with a partner who loves that she is smart and sassy and capable–and to see math as one of the tools that can help her dreams come true.
Watch this with your girls: Fast Forward Girls 2015
What You Can Do: Read books and watch movies about powerful girls or women who dream big, have interesting careers, or achieve great things. Praise her gifts of creativity, intuition, logic or problem solving.
If you overhear talk about boys that feels limiting, ask, “Would you be happy being with a boy who thought you weren’t smart?”
10. Girls Don’t Like Math
There’s one more big reason that girls say they’re bad at math: they just don’t like it.
They can do it, but they don’t want to. Math is boring. Numbers don’t mean anything to them. It’s just rules and facts to remember year after year.
Girls have the deck stacked against them when it comes to math and science, but I believe almost everything I’ve talked about so far would fade into the background if girls really loved math.
Girls have strong language skills, are quick to see patterns, love bright colors and often love to draw. Girls want to make meaning and find connections.
What if girls could learn math in ways they love–with patterns, drawing, games, exploration, imagination, art, and language?
It makes sense to me that if girls could learn according to their strengths, if it were fun and made them feel good, girls would happily ignore messages about not being good at math and get on with simply doing what they loved.
What You Can Do: Make math fun by playing math games together and pointing out math in everyday life. Draw a picture of the math using colored pens. Ask math questions with no wrong answer: What do you notice? What patterns do you see? How is this problem like that one?
To Sum Up…
Girls are just as capable of mastering math as boys are. It’s not ability that holds them back, but they do have some big obstacles to overcome:
- Society tells them girls can’t be good at math.
- They believe that math smarts are something you have to be born with.
- Math isn’t interesting to girls.
Luckily, there are many things we can do to help girls feel more excited and confident about math.
We can surround girls with positive role models and strong women in books, films, and real life.
We can change our language about math and inspire girls to dream bigger.
We can make math fun for girls with games, art, and real life.
Maybe most important of all, we can let our girls know, without a shadow of a doubt, that we believe they can do it.
What are your thoughts on girls and math? Leave a comment below!
A few of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning I may receive a few cents commission when you buy through a link on this page.