The American Mathematical Society recently published a study (Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving) that finds evidence to disprove the widely held idea that girls are not as good at math as boys are. Instead, the relative small percent of girls excelling in math is traced to cultural forces found in the U.S., forces that can be changed so girls can approach the study of math with an open mind. While such changes would open doors to girls, it would also benefit society in general. To find the true cost of such social forces discouraging girls, we must think in terms of what girls bring to society through their math skills.
What is the cost of perpetuating the myth that girls can’t do math? The most immediate cost is to our daughters themselves, who are then denied access to many careers that depend on math. As many have noted, the high paying jobs in our economy today tend to rely heavily on math. To deny our young women good mathematical education is to forever deny them entry into the more lucrative positions in the labor market, and to make the return to their time worth less than the return to their brothers’.
But there is another cost to this, too. When our children learn skills that help them use their own talents to the best of their ability, they bring creativity to our world that would otherwise not be there. There is therefore an externality involved, as the cost of such negative ideas, like the effects of second-hand smoke, extends beyond the little girls who are hurt and affects society as a whole. How many girls do not become doctors, how many potential teachers do not pursue teaching, because they mistakenly believed that math would forever be a foreign language to them? To limit them and their future is to lose not only the skills that they can bring to our world, but also to limit our world’s potential.
When I first started teaching math at our small women’s college, I was surprised at how many students came to me saying that they had “math phobia”. This was something completely foreign to me, since I have been encouraged to study math from my earliest years in grammar school, and have found discussions about how boys are naturally better than girls at math to be odd and unsettling. How could this be, since I was obviously pretty good at math?
Unlike many, I was gifted with excellent teachers who did not allow me to buy into the perspective that girls can’t do math. Instead, I was encouraged to study math and math related subjects. This was very different from some others in my generation, who were told that boys did math and girls did not. I am now chair of a mathematics department at our college, and see the effects of such ideas on my students. I have had students sit in my office in tears telling me that they simply can’t do math. I think they were surprised when I do not believe them, but instead help them to find ways to learn the math we are studying. Some of these students were returning students in their mid 40s or beyond who have raised multiple children successfully. With only one child, I am in awe of their accomplishments in life, and so try to convince them that they HAVE been doing math all along. They had stretched budgets to meet the needs of large families, and had made important financial decisions that had allowed their families to flourish even in hard times. As I teach them basic math concepts, I am very aware that there is much about the practical applications of math to everyday life that they could teach me. If only they had been encouraged in this field at a younger age!
When you interact with young girls in your life, I hope that you encourage them to pursue any interest in math that they might exhibit. Not only will they be better off for it, but so will we all.