Gender and the numb3r5 game
Friday, July 20, 2012

Why is it that most girls grow up with the (often mistaken) notion that tahey are ‘bad’ at math — while boys don’t?

It’s common know-
ledge that women are underrepresented in the fields of science, math and engineering — and a number of studies have looked at how cultural stereotypes may be affecting young girls in terms of school mathematics.

University of Washington researcher Dario Cvencek is from the former Yugoslavia and claims that the stereotype that math was for boys didn’t exist there. He used the Implicit Association Test to measure math-gender stereotypes in 247 children in Seattle, Washington.

Cvencek and his colleagues found that American girls exhibit the belief that “math is not for me” as early as second grade, reports Science Daily. This study didn’t just measure the prevalence of the stereotype but the degree to which girls identified with it. This absorption of the stereotype showed up before there were other measurable differences in gender and math achievement, according to co-author Andrew Meltzoff.

Another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and also reported in Science Daily took an international tack. University of Virginia scientists used the Implicit Association Test and data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study to take note of the math/science stereotype as it related to boys and girls in eighth-grade across 34 different countries. The researchers found that 70 per cent of participants hold the stereotype.

Implicit beliefs are unconscious and often directly opposite what people believe they believe. Researcher Brian Nosek adds that the gaps in science achievement and implicit stereotypes reinforce each other. The patterns of gender representation in certain fields can reinforce the gender stereotype and having the unconscious belief influences career choices.

Annie Murphy Paul, who studies the science of learning, describes how mothers and teachers may pass on this stereotype, in a Time magazine article. She describes a 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science that found a teacher’s level of comfort with math can influence the way girls perform in the subject. 

Another study, conducted by Elizabeth Gunderson from the University of Chicago, studied how a mother’s anxiety about her own math ability is passed down to her daughter.

Paul reports that Gunderson measured mothers’ anxiety and their own fixed beliefs about their ability. Many mothers may make comments like, “I can’t do math to save my life,” or “I’ve never been good at science”. Children readily emulate the same-sex parent as they seek out their roles in the world and such negative beliefs are easily re-generated in our offspring.

Pamela Davis-Kean of the University of Michigan conducted a long-term study of the effect of parents’ attitudes and values on children’s math and science performance.

The 13-year-long study of over 800 children and their parents found that parents tend to spend more time on math and science activities with sons rather than daughters. They also spend more money on related toys for boys rather than girls, according to another Science Daily article.

Davis-Kean found that a father’s stereotypes greatly influence both boys and girls in terms of their interest in math and science and whether or not they then go on to pursue training in those fields.

Paul writes that self-awareness is the first step in overcoming this negative transmission. Parents can watch what they say in terms of what they say about themselves and math.

It might even help to take the Implicit Association Test yourself (available at You can participate in research and learn more about your own unconscious beliefs at the same time.

Help your kids with their homework without fear. Look upon these activities as an opportunity to gain new understanding, advises Paul. Most of all, parents need to instil a sense of change and potential in children, that abilities aren’t fixed even if proclivities are present, that aptitude can be gained from learning no matter what natural talent is present. You can show children this by learning along with them.

Meltzoff says that we need to learn to portray math as being equally applicable for both boys and girls through uncovering and dismantling stereotypes among parents and teachers, video games and the media.

Take a look at what you say and do concerning your daughter in the coming weeks. What games and activities do you buy for them or sign them up for? How do you deal with helping them with their homework? What daily questions do you pose to them in terms of learning what they’ve already assimilated in terms of gender stereotypes? Have frank discussions with your daughter and help her to understand that you support her in bucking the system. 

Oksana is a life coach based in Dubai; she’s an expert in stress management, addictions and phobias, relationships, communication skills and emotional pain management.

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