If a chicken and a half lays an egg and a half in a day and a half, how fast is the train going that started on the East Coast at 10 a.m. while the earth is moving at 30 mph?
Yes, that math problem is a joke. But the feelings I had for years when confronted with anything that looked vaguely like it weren’t. Like many young girls, I was terrified of math class. Like many, I was sure that math was something boys had a special gene for and girls did not. Sadly, I had teachers and other adults around me who subscribed to the same myth and reinforced my anxiety.
Some of you may remember the fracas over a talking Barbie doll released in the ’90s that had among its phrases “math class is tough.” The ensuing brouhaha resulted in the manufacturer deleting the phrase. But the marketing department at Mattel wasn’t wrong in identifying an attitude: There are now several generations of Americans who believe that math is too difficult for the average girl to master. Math-impaired moms who bought the stereotype and are unable to help their kids with math homework transmit their confusion and embarrassment to their daughters. America, consequently, is falling way behind other countries where women contribute equally to men in fields such as engineering, electronics, science, and medical research — all professions that require competence in math.
It seems that even elementary school teachers contribute to the problem. A recent study at the University of Chicago found that female elementary school teachers who are anxious about math pass on to female students the stereotype that girls aren’t as good at it as boys.
Do the math! Over 50 percent of American elementary school teachers are women and most of them are insecure in their mathematics skills (and therefore avoided taking higher math classes themselves). They then transmit their anxiety to the girls in their classes. The consequences are a huge concern. Rather than developing a “can-do” attitude toward math, the girls assume an “I can’t” and adopt the belief that “other girls can’t either.”
I recently polled my former students and friends through Facebook, asking the women about their early experiences with math and how their attitudes were formed. The following responses are representative of their responses and speak to the pervasiveness of the stereotype and the effects of the use of public humiliation as a motivator.
“What initially discouraged me and helped to develop my attitude towards math was my mom telling me she struggled with math, and wasn’t good at it, and wouldn’t be much good helping me when I needed it with homework assignments.” – my high school best friend, remembering this from 50+ years ago
“I remember in 6th grade my teacher would make us do math problems by ourselves on the front board while the whole class watched. She picked me and I had no idea how to do the math problem. She then humiliated me in front of the entire class … For about two years after that I had severe anxiety problems in school and especially in math class.” – College senior
“My math teacher in my junior year of high school was the worst thing that ever happened to my math confidence. Teachers like her need to encourage girls who are straggling, not reprimand them!” – College senior
“For some reason my 8th grade math teacher reserved special sarcasm for girls who didn’t do well – like he didn’t expect us to be able to do it.” — College sophomore
“When I asked a professor to help me understand a problem, he suggested that I ask my boyfriend.” — College junior
“Whenever someone asks me what my major is and I tell them math, it’s often like they can’t believe it. I’ve even had waitresses express astonishment that I like math and want to do more of it.” — Graduate student in mathematics
From another graduate student in pure mathematics: “People often ask me what I see in math. When I tell them that working on a problem makes my day, they often write me off as some sort of weird geek. I don’t think that would happen if I were male.”
How did I finally make friends with math? I give the credit to one good teacher my senior year of high school who resolutely refused to accept the idea that kids –even girls – couldn’t learn how to think mathematically. I remember sitting with him after school one day while we went over and over some algebraic equation. “Marie. Stop trying to plug numbers into a formula. You need to understand what you are trying to do here. Let me explain.” And explain he did…