From Ada Lovelace to Kathrine Johnson to Mayim Bialik, it's no secret that when it comes to mathematics, women can achieve anything that men can. However, despite all the attention paid in recent years to the contributions of women in STEM, it hasn't made up for the centuries of their contributions being overlooked, both by popular opinion and general academia.
When it comes it our kids' education, there is a definite gender gap which begins to form as students advance in grade level. Girls tend to perform better in reading and writing, while boys tend to perform better in math and science. We've discussed before the difficulty that boys face with reading comprehension. What are the contributing factors of the math gender gap for girls?
A lot of discourse around the gender gap comes down to perceptions. While boys tend to perform better in math than girls do, girls still perform well. But perceptions can lead to stereotyping, which can harm children's performance in school as they model their behavior based on what they're taught. Many programs have popped up over the last decade specifically designed to fight negative stereotypes about girls and STEM. Since girls as a group are not deficient in math skills, they shouldn't be discouraged from pursuing STEM education.
Another factor may be a natural binary that we tend to believe in. You're either a word person or a number person, but not both. And this doesn't have to be the case. Being strong academically doesn't have to be limited to one subject. Specialization in knowledge is for career or hobby pursuits, not general education. Since girls tend to score higher than boys in reading and writing, there is a natural tendency to encourage those skills and ignore or minimize the others. And everyone likes to receive praise and attention, especially kids. When they get positive feedback for something, chances are that's what they'll devote their time to improving.
As 21st century learners, our kids are in a unique position to leave behind all negative stereotypes about gender and be treated equally as human beings. It's great to celebrate being a girl, being a boy, or any other attribute, but we can no longer allow labels to limit the potential of our kids. So, how can you help leave those old attitudes in the past and close the math gender gap for your daughter? First, be aware of her strengths and weaknesses, and set realistic expectations. Relate math skills to what they want to do in life. Girls who want to pursue the life of a dancer, actress, or artist will need math constantly in the real world, especially if they plan on working for themselves. Chefs, teachers, writers, athletes all need math to get them to their goals. Centering math skills as an essential stepping stone to your child's dreams reenforces the idea that math is for everyone.
If your daughter dreams of pursuing a career or hobby in STEM, or is passionate about space, science, video games, or a related pursuit, seek out role models to build confidence. From NASA's Office of STEM Engagement to the Girls Who Code organization, industry professionals are setting up more and more opportunities for girls to engage with real, working professionals who have been there, done that, and overcome adversity to succeed and thrive in their field.
Finally, it's important to remember that even if you don't have a daughter yourself, your sons also need to support their classmates. Peer pressure comes from peers, so check in with your kids to make sure they're being positive allies in the classroom. Attend a local fundraiser, girl's sporting event, or support a girl's club with a donation or volunteer to help chaperone an outing. Our kids will need to work together and support one another as they grow and shape our world, so encourage this behavior early, and set a good example for them to aspire to!