Restoring Math Confidence for Girls

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“I'm just not good at math,” my daughter grumbled under her breath.

I was surprised. Where did she get that idea, I wondered. As far as I can remember she has loved numbers and was quick to pick up math concepts. However, I began to see her confidence slowly wither and her frustration rise. It started in the 2nd grade. And, now, she sat at the kitchen table with pencil in hand, ready to give up, convinced she just couldn't do it anymore.

I scoured my brain for understanding why she felt this way. I wanted to help her. I am familiar with the stereotype of boys not being good at reading and English and girls not being good with science and math. I just never thought my daughter would be swallowed up by a stereotype.

Then I heard NPR's piece on stereotype threats. Defined in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, stereotype threats occur when someone is “at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group.” The NPR interview focused on female scientists. The discovery was that female scientists in the workplace conversed less around fellow male scientists and whenever their field in general was being discussed. The theory was that the female scientists feared giving the impression that women aren’t as good as men in the field of science. This threat affected their behavior, creating an almost self-fulfilling prophecy.

I thought of my daughter. Could she be giving up before she even begins on her math homework because of conscious or subconscious thoughts of not being as good as a boy? Further studies show this may not be too far from reality. One recent study confirmed that girls experience math anxiety, while another focused on how female teachers, who have math anxiety, can unconsciously transfer this fear onto their female pupils.

How can we help our female students (and teachers)? We certainly do not need to lower our standards. Females are capable of meeting standards in math. A 1999 study by psychologists Geoffrey Cohen, Claude Steele, and Lee Ross suggests a different solution: teachers need to focus on encouraging students with constructive feedback that they are capable of meeting the standards. Another idea is to provide positive role models for our female students and teachers. As a teacher and mother of young girls, I plan on giving both solutions a try.

So while the existence of stereotype threat is disappointing, there are ways to prevent and counteract it. To read more about gender discrepancy and academics and how to help our young girls, read here.

Sansbury is a middle and high school English teacher in Georgia.


Thanks for covering this

Submitted by Melissa M on 16 August 2012 - 8:08am.

Thanks for covering this topic. It's so sad to know that these stereotypes still exist and are having an impact on bright young girls like your daughter. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be getting better. Enrollment by women in math, science, and engineering has actually dropped in the last few years, after rising for quite a few years before that. As a working electrical engineer who is also mom to a daughter, I find this so discouraging! We need to do everything we can to start telling our girls they're capable from an early age. My company, Technigirl, recently release a press release about this topic. You can read it here:

Finding positive role models is definitely helpful. It's also important to tell girls that even if they feel it's hard for them, academic skills are malleable and can be improved. Best of luck to you and your daughter!

This is so interesting to me

Submitted by Marya on 16 August 2012 - 11:05am.

This is so interesting to me because I do suffer from math anxiety- as soon as I see or hear a math problem that I think that I can't "do," I immediately tune out. This happens with most math aside from simple addition/subtraction problems. I don't do percentages (sales) or fractions...and apparently, my mom just reminded me, in junior high- the bane of my exisistance I did JUMPING JACKs *IN* math class to calm myself down and get ready to DO math (class). I can't believe that I did them but according to her, I did, and they helped. I guess only for that time in my life but the fact that I was willing to do them in JUNIOR HIGH (embarrassing?!) is testament to how nervous I was when I walked in that room. This summer I went to 2 weeks of professional development (I teach Kindergarten) for First Steps in Mathematics and we worked really hard getting down to fundamentals, talking about kids and their comfortable/non comfort with math. It was like we were talking about ME! In some ways the kids in our district are so much more comfortable with math and number than I am because of the ways we are teaching them, but it can only work that way if the teachers are also comfortable. So while I was SO discomfited this summer while working through and with math, I came to a much clearer idea of what my role is a teacher in teaching and being comfortable myself in teaching and KNOWING math. I am going to share this article with my colleagues and instructors. Thanks! PS. I know THIS speaks to me because I NEVER comment!

My daughters have attended

Submitted by Michelle H on 1 January 2013 - 8:10pm.

My daughters have attended "Count Me In" camps every summer since 2009. The camps are week-long math camps just for young girls (1st-5th grade) and they've been both attitude and confidence-changing. I wish more girls had the opportunity to learn in an all-girls environment.

Mine too! My daughters loved

Submitted by Len on 28 January 2013 - 6:00pm.

Mine too! My daughters loved the Count Me In Math Camp for Girls that they attended last summer in Denver. Great teachers and a great program.