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Encouraging Girls in Math and Science: The Struggle Against Gender Stereotypes

Negative stereotypes holding girls back from math and scienceWhile working at a science museum, I once observed a mother, toting a daughter past exhibits on dinosaurs, oceans and machines, approach an employee.

“Where is the stuff for girls?” she asked.

It’s a question that would ruffle the feathers of any female archaeologist, marine biologist or engineer. But it’s also a question deeply rooted in our cultural stereotype that mathematics and the sciences are not “girl stuff.”

And it’s a question that doesn’t seem to go away.

Palie Cantu has been teaching middle school math at Forest Ridge, an all-girls Catholic school in Bellevue, for 18 years. Carly Reiter just started teaching middle school science at the Seattle Girls School. Both began their teaching careers in coed classrooms and see significant differences.

“It’s easy to just call on the boys,” Cantu remembers from her years teaching in a coed school. “They are the ones with their hands up. But the girls really are wanting to hide and not really wanting to take risks.”

Today, her female students tell her they’re not as afraid to get help or ask questions as they were when they shared a classroom with boys.

Reiter has similar observations. “Girls are naturally more hesitant to jump into crazy experiments,” she says. In fact, Reiter thinks girls’ tendencies to organize their thoughts on paper and be comfortable drawing observations make them “naturally more scientific.”

Reiter was excited to see that scientific nature come out when she took a teaching position at a girls’ school this year. She began teaching with a “worm lab,” and the girls jumped right in. “In my coed classes, the girls really played into the ‘I’m scared of worms!’ stereotype and let the boys do a lot of the work,” she says. Even then, Reiter preferred to create single-gender groups, noticing that when she did, the girls would engage in the experiments much faster.

Negative stereotypes for girls

A report published by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in 2010 titled “Why So Few?” discusses what’s called “stereotype threat,” an idea first described in the ’90s that shows how performance can be hindered by negative stereotypes.

For example, one study divided male and female college students with similar math abilities into two rooms to take a test. One room was told that men performed better than women on the test; the other room was told there was no difference. The effect was astounding: Women in the first group performed much worse than their male counterparts. The scores in the second room were similar to each other and more consistent with the students’ abilities.

According to the AAUW report, hundreds of studies have verified the negative impact of stereotypes. And it doesn’t take much for the effect to surface: Simply asking respondents their gender or putting them in testing rooms where males outnumber the females triggers the threat.

Math and science stereotyping starts early. According to a 2011 study by I-LABS (Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences) researchers at the University of Washington, elementary students already identify math as something boys do. Researchers showed that even when issues with self-esteem are removed, students as young as first graders connect “math” with “boys.”

Girls who don’t want to fight the stereotype often turn away from math and science. That’s what Reitha Weeks, Ph.D., did. Despite being co-valedictorian in high school, she was convinced that she wasn’t “smart enough to do science,” she says. It wasn’t until after college that she pursued a doctorate in genetics and embarked on a 13-year biotech career.

Weeks now focuses on science education at the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research and also serves on the board of the Seattle Association for Women in Science (AWIS). She says that having young, female role models is vital for girls to be able to see themselves as scientists.

Finding math and science mentors

Seventh- and eighth-grade girls in Seattle Public Schools can find role models in GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science), an AWIS program that gives girls the chance to meet monthly, do hands-on activities and talk with female mentors.

Parents should be role models, too. “Never, ever say in front of your child, ‘I can’t do math,’” says Weeks. “Encourage math and science inquiry. Try to think about how things work and ask questions, have interesting discussions, and go out and find the answers.”

Stacey Ohrs is the executive director of Expanding Your Horizons, an organization based in California that introduces women to science and math careers through national and international conferences. Ohrs wants to teach girls that high-tech careers are within reach. “Girls don’t have to be perfect in science class; they just have to like it and be willing to work through the issues and develop the intellectual skills.”

Weeks agrees. “Math is not always easy, but our kids give up too easily. Math takes doing homework and doing problems. It’s too much of a cop-out to say, ‘I can’t do it because I’m a girl.’”

It’s also important for girls to know that the hard work doesn’t have to be lonely. “Girls often think chemists work on their own,” says Ohrs, whose conferences show girls how collaborative science careers really are. That would excite math teacher Cantu, whose lessons involve a lot of group work. “Girls are very relational in their learning. The emotional part of their brain is always operating.”

Wendy Lawrence is a Seattle native who is now living with her husband and two young sons in Nashville, Tennessee. A longtime educator and former middle school head at Eastside Prep in Kirkland, she now blogs about parenting and books at The Family That Reads Together.

4 tips on combating children's gender stereotypes

1. Teach kids that hard work, not just talent, helps them learn.
2. Find successful female role models for girls.
3. Talk to your kids about math and science stereotypes.
4. Take your kids — boys and girls — to a science museum.

Source: American Association of University Women

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