By Marsha Walton
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Globally, girls are no worse than boys at mathematics. But stereotypes, some coming from teachers themselves, keep alive the myth that women and numbers don't mix.
(WOMENSENEWS)--For some women, anxiety about math is taught in the classroom.
"Having a highly math-anxious female teacher may push girls to confirm the stereotype that they're not as good as boys in math," said Sian Beilock, an expert on anxiety and stress related to learning and performance. Beilock teaches psychology at the University of Chicago.
Actress and mathematician Danica McKellar (who's appeared in the TV shows "The West Wing," "The Wonder Years" and "The Big Bang Theory") is working to undo that unintentional lesson.
In two recent best-sellers, McKellar has pushed self-confidence and intriguing math study tips for middle school girls. In her first book, "Math Doesn't Suck," McKellar says math "makes you feel smart when you walk into a room, prepares you for better-paying jobs and helps you think more logically."
And, she writes, you don't have to be a geek to be good at it: "I'm here to tell you from personal experience that you can be a glamour girl and a smart young woman who can certainly do math."
McKellar has a mathematics degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her third math book, "Hot X: Algebra Exposed," is due out in August.
Beilock's initial research into girls' math anxiety finds that advocacy efforts such as these are needed.
In a study released earlier this year, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Beilock found that in the classes she studied, female first- and second-grade teachers could pass on their uneasiness about math to female students. By the end of the school year, the higher a teacher's math anxiety, the lower the girls'--but not the boys'--math achievement.
The research followed 17 first- and second-grade teachers, all women, and their students--52 boys and 65 girls--through a school year.
Here's how it worked: Researchers assessed each teacher's anxiety about math, the students' level of math achievement and gender stereotypes.
Students were told two gender-neutral stories, one about a student good at math, one about a student good at reading. The kids were asked to draw these students. The girls who confirmed the belief that boys are better at math scored six points lower in math achievement than did boys or girls who had not developed the stereotypical belief.
Across the United States, exhaustive studies funded by the National Science Foundation show there just aren't gender differences anymore in math performance in American schools.
However, more than 90 percent of elementary teachers in the United States are women, and elementary-education majors have the highest rate of math anxiety of any college major, Beilock said.
Beilock said that many teachers have told her the findings echo their experience.
She added that, while this is an initial study, she is also interested in researching remedies to math attitudes and stereotypes.
"It is socially acceptable to say 'I hate math, I don't want to calculate the bill' at a restaurant," Beilock said. "But you don't find people saying, 'I hate reading.' There's a fairly prevalent, negative attitude about math."
Stereotypes about perceived female inferiority in math contradict scientific data.
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