Girls Just Want to Do Math

Francine Berman, smiling and looks like she is listening

Francine Berman

Francine Berman
is Vice President for Research and Professor of Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Vice Chair of the Anita Borg Board of Trustees, a world expert on national scale cyberinfrastructure, and good at Math.
  • “I was always good at Math and Science and Physics.”
  • “If you enjoy math and you write novels, it’s very rare that you’ll get a chance to put your math into a novel. I leapt at the chance.”
  • “I didn’t mind studying. Obviously math and the physical science subjects interested me more than some of the more artistic subjects, but I think I was a pretty good student.”

Quick quiz: How many of these quotes were by women?

If you answered zero, you’re right (answers at the end). It’s not common to hear women say that they are good at math and/or that they like math. In fact, the common perception is quite the opposite — that girls are not as proficient at, or as interested in, math as boys.

Perception matters. If girls assume they aren’t good at math, it limits their professional choices and personal growth. If everyone assumes that girls aren’t good at math, they are less likely to be in the pool for the top jobs. In 2009, CNN Money reported “The top 15 highest-earning college degrees all have one thing in common — math skills.”1 The perception that girls are not as good at Math also has societal repercussions: A world where half the population figures that the top jobs are not for them is a world that is not fulfilling its potential.

Is the perception true? Studies in the last half of the 20th century revealed a gender gap in math performance by high school, setting off a broad discussion about whether this might be due to nature or nurture. More recently, in “Gender, Culture, and Mathematics Performance,”2 researchers Hyde and Mertz state that a “prominent explanation for [the] measured gender difference in math performance in high school has been differential patterns of course taking, that is girls were less likely than boys to take advanced mathematics in high school. … Lacking this training, girls, not unexpectedly, performed less well than boys on standardized tests.” They also indicate that when girls began to take calculus in high school at the same rate as boys, the gap closed and that “girls have reached parity with boys in mathematics performance in the U.S., even in high school where a gap existed in earlier decades.”

Many women will tell you that they are “bad at math”. These same women may be running successful businesses with substantial financial operations, overseeing complex planning and logistics efforts, consistently winning at Sudoku, or making ends meet on a very tight budget. They clearly have problem solving, analytical, logical, reasoning, and other math skills. Would they have made different educational, professional, or other choices with the same skill sets if they thought they were “good at math”? Did the “bad at math” perception (self or otherwise) limit them?

I was never discouraged about being good at math. Serendipitous things helped fan my interest: My parents knew I loved puzzles and bought them for me. In junior high, my math teacher was bored one day and amazed us by proving that there was more than one kind of infinity (in particular, that there are more decimals [Real Numbers] than integers)! My high school sent me to the local Junior College to take Calculus because I had taken all the high school math courses. A little encouragement goes a long way. No-one told me that girls aren’t good at math or weren’t supposed to like math. Getting to explore my interests and abilities as I found them helped drive me to a technical career, and continues to stoke a lifelong curiosity about why things work and what strategies can be developed to get the best from them.

If we don’t think we’ll be good at math, we may be less inclined to take math classes. If we don’t think we’ll be good at math, we may be more likely to gravitate away from careers that require math skill sets. If we don’t think it’s OK to be good at math, we’ll limit ourselves.

So let’s get off that road.

We may not be able to change the perception (at first …), but we can change our language. We can stop saying we’re bad at math. We can start saying we’re good at math. We can start saying we like math. We can start saying that women are good at math. You can help, because you’re good at math. If there are enough of us, we just might build this into a movement.

A last quiz: How many of these quotes are by women?

  • “I loved logic, math, computer programming. I loved systems and logic approaches. And so I just figured architecture is this perfect combination.”
  • “Yes, I was really good in physics and in math.”
  • “I liked math – that was my favorite subject – and I was very interested in astronomy and in physical science.”
  • “You know, I loved math. My mom was a math teacher.”

All of them. See, we’ve already started.

Quote authors:

Quiz 1: Daniel Evans, politician; Mark Haddon, novelist; Alan Shepard, astronaut.
Quiz 2: Maya Lin, architect; Eva Herzigova, model; Sally Ride, astronaut; Joan Cusak, actress

Quote Sources:
Brainy Quotes
CNN Money
Harvard Papers

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