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.
A study published in January by psychology professor Nicole Else-Quest at Pennsylvania's Villanova University demonstrates that girls around the world are not worse at math than boys, but boys have a higher level of confidence in their math abilities. She examined data on math achievement and attitudes from nearly half a million students in 69 countries, ages 14 to 16.
"These results show that girls will perform at the same level as the boys when they are given the right educational tools and have visible female role models excelling in mathematics," said Else-Quest, whose research was published in Psychological Bulletin, by the American Psychological Association, based in Washington.
She said girls sometimes get subtle negative views about math from home as well as school.
If a mom can't help her teen daughter with her math homework, "that sends a message too," said Else-Quest. "Girls are thinking, 'Mom can't do this, maybe I don't need to; men are the ones that do this stuff.'"
Young women who pursue higher math and engineering classes at college experience a different kind of tension, even if their math skills are strong.
"If you walk into a class and see you are the only woman in there, your gender becomes so salient and there is this pressure to speak for other women. It can be a little lonely," said Else-Quest.
In the United States, men earn 56 percent of math degrees, women 44 percent. Doctoral degrees in mathematics and statistics have a wider gap: 69 percent for men and 31 percent for women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Much depends on role models. Else-Quest found that in countries that had more women in research-related positions, the girls were more likely to do better in math and feel more confident of those skills.
Jacqueline Smith, an elementary teacher for 37 years, has seen math anxiety in both girls and boys.
"Sometimes people think children who become upset about math say it's phony or fake. I think it's very real," said Smith, who teaches at Scott Montgomery Elementary School in Washington, D.C., and works with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Smith believes one practical way to improve the confidence of both teachers and female students is have a math specialist in every elementary school. These certified teachers could provide professional support for teachers who don't have a broad math background.
"They know that there is someone who is available that can offer them support, someone they can ask, 'Can you show me another strategy for teaching this, give me another way to look at things?'" said Smith. If schools can't arrange an on-site specialist, Smith says, online access to them could also help.
Marsha Walton covers science, technology, environment and space issues. She was a producer for CNN's science and tech unit for more than 10 years. Her work has also appeared on Mother Nature Network, Appalachian Voices and the National Science Foundation.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics:
Nicole Else-Quest's study in Psychological Bulletin:
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