Girls’ Math Classes Include Lessons in Anxiety

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Globally, girls are no worse than boys at mathematics. (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.

Primary Education

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.

Remedies for Attitudes and Stereotypes

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.

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.’"

A Different Kind of Tension

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.

For more information:

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics:

Danica McKellar:

Nicole Else-Quest’s study in Psychological Bulletin:


2 thoughts on “Girls’ Math Classes Include Lessons in Anxiety

  1. As a student for whom math was a pleasure, and always one of my favourite subjects in school, I was unaware that this was not a subject at which I was supposed to be capable. However, I never considered a math or science degree when I entered university, and I certainly was never encouraged to do so. As a person, now 65 years old, and seeing that this is still a problem for bright girls who like math, it is discouraging. At our local university, we are fortunate to have a great science professor who years ago began consciously encouraging girls in elementary and high school to enjoy liking math and science and to aim for degrees in math and science. Her name is Dr. Professor Margaret-Ann Armour, and she is tireless in supporting females in the study of science. The university group she was instrumental in forming, is WISEST at the University of Alberta, at this web address:

    • I was an elementary teacher from 1968-1979 and it was then that I discovered that I was not the only one with Math Anxiety. Research even then was telling us that primary grade teachers suffered the highest rate of Math Anxiety of any other professional group. I was determined to change that and started taking courses that were designed to support female teachers in overcoming this curse. I believe that if I had not been so math anxious, I might have gone into a more math/science field. My love of nature was so strong, yet I could not even pass basic Algebra and Geometry without the promise to my male math teachers that I would not pursue a career that would assume that my passing grade meant I could actually do math. In the early 90s, I taught an extension class called “Creating a Friendly Feeling toward Math” targeting teachers who could not pass the math part of the state teaching exam. Like Janet, I can not believe that we still have this problem with girls and math. But recently, I was teaching reading in a middle school and it looks like we are now producing more boys with math anxiety. I believe that math in general is in need of revamping. I know that the movement to make math more user friendly has been the goal of the NCTM, but unfortunately the standardized testing of math is still pretty much the same as when I was a child and many male teachers are holding out to “tradition” over “innovation” in how they teach math.