Education

Get-Ahead Girls Need 'Do the Math' Message

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"Math Doesn't Suck" by TV's Danica McKellar is selling copies, getting media attention and talking to girls about decimals and digits. Jennifer Thurston has some misgivings about the book's style, but likes the basic "do the math" message.

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Jennifer Thurston

(WOMENSENEWS)--Say you have $50 and you want to buy a fabulous blue sundress that costs $62. Bummer! What do you do when you can't figure out the markdown once it's on sale?

If you're a female teen who dreads middle school math, you might just go to a bookstore and consider buying "Math Doesn't Suck."

It's that girly-girl math text by TV actress Danica McKellar, who has managed to fill up an entire book with sundress stumpers accompanied by teen stories of triumph over numeric nightmares, horoscopes, personality quizzes and a syrupy sales pitch that math--yes, math--doesn't diminish your status as the coolest girl in school.

It's the kind of book that, on the surface, makes my skin crawl. It's loaded with outdated stereotypes that reinforce traditional gender roles. It's got cutesy illustrations and mimics Cosmopolitan. It has an unhealthy obsession with presenting math lessons as exercises in how to manage dating, shopping or figuring out how many shoes will fit in the closet, among other empty-headed obsessions.

When I first bought the book and took it home with me, I was expecting to spend an evening chortling and hooting while brushing up on my fractions.

Instead, I was struck by what a clever answer McKellar--who came to fame on TV's "The Wonder Years" and "The West Wing" but has real credentials as a mathematician--has provided to what is a pressing problem for all of us: the dearth of women and girls in math-intensive fields.

"Math Doesn't Suck," published by Hudson Street Press in August 2007, attempts to make math more appealing to middle school girls at precisely the moment in their schooling when many are turned off to math and start to tune out numbers entirely.


Media Math Blitz

McKellar's book has gotten a lot of publicity. She's done the morning shows, cable news and People magazine. Written by anybody but a celebrity, "Math Doesn't Suck" probably would have wound up as a dusty remnant on the bottom shelves of bargain bookstores. Instead, it became a 2007 customer favorite on Amazon.com. The Girl Scouts made her an honorary member just for writing it. And if the fan mail posted on her Web site is any way to judge the book's merits, then girls love it.

Apparently, McKellar was on to something.

A study published in the January-February edition of Child Development concludes that girls look closely to their peers when deciding whether to take math classes, and at what level, in high school. More so than boys, girls are influenced when they see their female friends excel in math, and they are more likely to want to do the same. Enhancing the social appeal of math--as McKellar tries to do--lures girls in.

math doesn't suck

That's a laudable goal, especially in light of news last week that a presidential commission tasked with "fixing" the nation's faulty math curricula will recommend a return-to-the-basics approach of teaching math by emphasizing rudimentary skills and higher performance standards. And considering that there's some evidence--though not conclusive--that single-sex education can raise girls' performance on math tests, an argument can be made that a girl-tailored approach to math education could help reach that goal.

Amid a broader debate about whether boys and girls should be educated separately, many theories abound about why fewer women enter math fields, everything from a lack of sufficient mentoring to subtly discriminatory messages that math is for boys and liberal arts are for girls. A January 2007 study in Psychological Science concluded that women who saw themselves as more "feminine" did not believe they had less intrinsic math abilities than men, but they were still more likely to perform poorly in math and turn away from it because they viewed it as masculine.


Dispelling Old Notions

So it's tough to have substantial quibbles with a book like "Math Doesn't Suck," especially when McKellar is trying so hard to dispel old notions about math and draw girls in to the field, where female representation has stagnated.

There has been much scrutiny and hand-wringing about that by the National Science Foundation, major think tanks and many academics, but not enough concrete ideas about how to fix it. Even a top geek school like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--which has made institutional efforts to draw women into the faculty and the student body for the past decade--can't come up with a solution. In December, the school granted tenure to 25 professors, but only one was a woman.

The under-representation of women--and people of color--in math, technology and science is an acute problem for the nation, which needs to attract as much talent to these fields as possible in order to maintain a successful, dynamic economy.

Women also suffer from the gender wage gap, and entering nontraditional fields--where earnings tend to be higher--can be one step toward shrinking it.

Here's how it calculates: A woman who graduates college with a math degree can expect to earn a median income of $40,000 during her 20s; science and engineering gets $43,000; and computer science brings in $51,000, according to statistics gathered by the National Science Foundation.

Women with bachelor's degrees in non-science fields can expect median incomes of $32,000. There's still a wage gap between men and women in math and science, but it's smaller than the gap between men and women in the liberal arts. For workers with non-science degrees in their 20s, the gender pay gap is about 20 percent; for those with math degrees, the gap narrows to 5 percent.


Good Gains in Some Fields

After many years of trying to attract women to math and science, universities have made good gains in the numbers of women who earn bachelor's degrees in biology, agriculture, earth sciences and physics.

But the number of women who earned computer science baccalaureates in 2004 actually dropped 3 percent, according to the National Science Foundation, and just 1 in 4 was female. Only 20 percent of engineering majors were female, even though the number went up 3 percent in 2004.

Moving into the graduate school level, and looking at the ranks of tenured female academics, the numbers get worse.

Women drop out of the pipeline for many reasons, but the final tally adds up to a general atmosphere that does not favor them, does not provide equal opportunities and does not address women's caregiving duties and need for flexibility to balance professional and private lives.

Women who turn away from math and science--for whatever reason--are missing great opportunities, though.

As McKellar points out, just doing math makes people more intelligent and prepares them for all kinds of careers. Taking a break from acting and majoring in math during college "was one of the best choices I've made," she writes.

Whether the sales pitch is about how math makes you smart and sexy, whether it offers challenge and excitement or whether it can create a secure spot for you in the middle class, it's important to make sure girls buy it.

Jennifer Thurston is associate editor of Women's eNews and wishes she were a little better at math.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

Danica McKellar, Math Doesn't Suck:
http://www.mathdoesntsuck.com/

Association for Women in Mathematics:
http://www.awm-math.org/

The National Academies, "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering"
Podcast: http://media.nap.edu/podcasts/nax12beyondbias.mp3 [11 mB]


Note: Women's eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.





 
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