Girls Can Do Math: A Mathematical MemoirIf 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…

Suddenly a light bulb went off. “That’s it?” I thought. “That’s all there is to it?” I was furious at my former teachers for not teaching me and at myself for having been taken in by the idea that it was too hard. Why had teachers insisted on going over and over rote formulas? Why hadn’t they taken the time to explain the logic of numbers?

Oh, I didn’t instantly turn into some kind of math genius. My talents generally do tend more to the social sciences. But my fear of all things numerical lessened considerably. I could look at problems as challenges instead of traps. It was enormously freeing at the time and gave me the confidence to master the skills I later needed to do and understand research in my field.

My old high school friend on Facebook had a similar experience: “…It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that a friend who was a math genius showed me an easy way to look at math and I started to change my attitude. Today I wish I had paid more attention to learning math as it would help me greatly with my interest in some of the new physics.”

Yes, one good teacher or one good explanation can turn things around. Better yet would be to never have all those anxieties and self-defeating attitudes inculcated into our girls in the first place.

How to help girls avoid or defeat math anxiety

  • Don’t give in to negativity yourself. If you are the mother of daughters or the teacher of girls and you still have lingering doubts about your own competence in math, deal with it. It’s never too late to learn to appreciate it and to develop math skills. Take a math class. Find a sympathetic tutor. Remind yourself that the negative messages you got growing up were just plain wrong, wrong, wrong. Everyone doesn’t have to learn higher level calculus (although you could) but everyone absolutely should be confident about basic functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, fractions, and percentages. We use those skills daily. Knowing the basics will at least let you offer positive support to your kids during the first few grades when they are laying down the foundation for math success.
  • Understand that everyone (yes, even girls) is born with an aptitude for math. All little kids want to learn how to count and use numbers. They like being able to tell you they are “this many” years old or that they have “that many” dolls or rocks or shells. They like to sort things in different combinations and figure out what goes with what. This kind of play is the basis for number competency. Our challenge isn’t how to teach enthusiasm for math but rather how not to extinguish it.
  • Get your kids involved with number games and practical applications from a young age. Play number games with little ones – like asking them how many fingers you are holding up. With older kids, show them how to figure out a 15 percent tip or what 20 percent off means to the cost of something on sale. Activities like doubling a recipe or figuring out the measurements for a home project show them how math is applied. Make these kinds of problems into a routine part of the conversation at home and the kids will learn to be matter of fact about them in school too.
  • Treat math homework like any other subject. Don’t give the message that it is harder than reading assignments or making maps. It’s not. It’s just different.
  • Engage with your girls about the reasoning behind the problems. Math is one of those subjects where challenging ourselves is what counts. When working on homework, encourage your daughter to work on problems that don’t come easily. Talk through how she is approaching the problem. As one of my Facebook friends said: “I always appreciated being told what the math I was learning could be used for. When I didn’t know I was far less inclined to do it.” Another young woman appreciated her father’s involvement: “If I had any problems, my father would teach me. He wanted me to understand the reasoning behind solving each problem.”

Yes Girls Can

Girls can, and do, learn math. When we adults are positive and enthusiastic about the subject; when we are delighted when the mystery of a problem gets solved; when we show our girls how math fits into our lives every day, they will take our lead. We don’t want to waste another generation of girls’ talents and achievements in something so essential to success in life. I’ll know we’ve made it when Barbie says “Math is so much fun!”