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Restoring Math Confidence for Girls

“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'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.