Encouraging Girls’ Success in Math
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Girls are more likely to struggle with math than boys, especially in the middle and high school years. At least part of this difficulty is due to the messages that they receive from various quarters. The message that “real girls don’t do math” is prevalent throughout our culture. They are told in direct and not so direct ways that math is not for them. Simply put, girls are socialized to avoid math.
These messages may be conveyed both at home and in school. When it comes to math, teachers tend to call on boys more often, are more patient in waiting for their answers and are more likely to ask them challenging questions. In addition, boys are steered in the direction of higher-level math classes more often than girls. Girls who are proficient in math may go to great lengths to avoid being labeled a math whiz and teased by peers for excelling in an “unfeminine” subject.
At home, parents may give the same message. They may be more likely to do math activities with their sons than their daughters. Mothers may unintentionally suggest that math is not for girls with such comments as “I’m not any good at this. Go ask your father.” And society endorses this message as well; even a Barbie doll was designed to say: “Math class is tough.” Is it any surprise, then, that girls report being less confident than boys as early as third grade and that they are more prone to math anxiety.
As a result of these messages, girls may come to believe they will not be successful in math. This diminished confidence may hamper their concentration and lessen their effort in math. We need to help counter these insecurities by being especially encouraging of their math skills.
To begin with, you need to monitor the messages you send to your daughter about math. Make sure that you do not sell her short by suggesting that lots of girls find math confusing or that she should avoid the more challenging math courses. Instead show confidence in her ability to do math, praise her successes, respond positively to her questions and encourage her to persist. If you are helping her in math, try to boost her confidence by starting with problems she can do easily and then gradually move to more difficult problems. The hope is that she will come to see her skills in a more positive light and not be so fearful of tackling math problems.