The trouble came on Harriet Callahan slowly. As a high school freshman she had been placed in a science and math honors program and began the year enthusiastically. But after a few weeks in first-year algebra, Harriet felt confused and scared.
“I’d sit there and hear my teacher talking about variables and feel completely lost,” she recalls. “If I asked a question in class, the guys would give me a dirty look and make me feel stupid.”
Before long Harriet started to receive poor marks on her exams and became increasingly tense. Although she studied diligently before each exam, she slept poorly at night and often woke the next morning feeling nervous. “I’d tell myself, ‘I’ve just got to do well on this test,’ but I’d get myself into a state that ensured I couldn’t do it,” Harriet says.
Eventually, the situation became so stressful that Harriet dropped out of the honors program and took the standard math course. “Now I feel completely different. I know I can do math if I take my time and figure it out slowly,” says Harriet.
Jennifer Madrid’s difficulties with math surfaced even earlier. Although she did well in the early years of elementary school, she was placed in a below-average math class in the sixth grade, and by the seventh grade Jennifer’s math grades had slipped to C’s and D’s. Jennifer’s concerned parents encouraged her to get extra help after school but she resisted, claiming the math teacher didn’t like her.
“I was shocked. Here I was, running a program to help kids learn to enjoy math, and my daughter was a prime example of someone who was getting turned off to it in school,” says George Madrid, coordinator for the Transition Math Program at East Los Angeles Community College, a math-enrichment program for high school and college students. Finally, Jennifer’s father hired a tutor over the summer who helped her sharpen her math skills.
Consider Melissa Burke’s story. In the fourth and fifth grades Melissa and her classmates were given computer instruction every week and by the sixth grade they were expected to work independently on computer program assignments. Although Melissa was an honors student, she found the computer work tedious and difficult. To make matters even worse, the boys in her class always seemed to finish their work before Melissa and the other girls.
“Sometimes the teacher would pair us with a boy, and then he’d end up showing us how something should be done, or he’d ignore us and work ahead,” says Melissa. “Whoever we worked with, the guys just took over the computer class, and so we often felt left out.”
What’s the Problem?
The three situations described above typify the negative reactions many girls have toward math and the computer sciences. Like Harriet, many girls seem to do well in math until they reach more advanced courses, when they suddenly become nervous about their performance. Others, like Jennifer, who start showing signs of difficulty in junior high, feel so alienated from their teachers they avoid asking for extra help. Still other girls, like Melissa, seem to lose interest in the computer because their male classmates are so aggressively identified with it.
Psychology experts say that the anxiety around math and computers expressed by students like Harriet, Jennifer, and Melissa is a defensive reaction that stems from feelings of insecurity that can inhibit clear thought. “When people can’t grasp a subject easily or have difficulty with it, they often feel afraid and start having feelings of worthlessness. This can be followed by a distaste for the process and a lifetime of revulsion for the subject,” says Elliot Wineburg, M.D., director of New York City’s Associated Biofeedback Medical Group and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. Like Harriet, the apprehensive student usually expresses anxiety through adverse physical reactions and sets up a vicious cycle that prevents her from thinking clearly.
While it is true that some boys also develop anxieties about math or the computer sciences, educational experts note that it happens far more frequently to girls, often with profound effects upon their future career choices.
“Math has been called the critical filter because the number of careers in which you can participate is greatly affected by the study of mathematics,” observes Vera Preston, president of Women and Mathematics Education, an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “The more math you take, the more courses or careers are open to you, and this directly affects a young person’s earning power.” A student who fails to take advanced algebra and trigonometry in high school, for instance, will have to play “catch up” in college, and obtaining a degree in the sciences, engineering, or business will be more difficult, if not impossible.
A 1976 study by sociologist Lucy Sells, Ph.D., on freshman entering the University of California at Berkeley found that 92 percent of the young women had taken so little high school math that they were limited to five majors—humanities, social sciences, music, elementary education, and guidance and counseling. Not coincidentally, these fields tend to pay substantially less than the sciences, technology, or business. A 1987 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the median weekly salary for male engineers is $691; in contrast, the median weekly salary for social workers is $451 and for secondary school teachers $508.
Inequality Over Time
Strangely enough, the experts note that girls start off performing at least as well as boys in mathematics, and often even better on standardized tests when they enter the first grade. Yet in early adolescence, when mathematics begins to draw upon a youngster’s abstract reasoning ability, girls start to fall behind, and by the end of high school the boys surpass girls on standardized achievement tests.
A U.S. department of Education study comparing data from 1978 and 1982 National Assessment of Educational Progress on Mathematics Achievement (NAEP) shows that this pattern has remained consistent over time. In that study nine-year-old girls has slightly better math skills than boys, but by age seventeen males had exceeded females on every cognitive level. Significantly, high school boys also enroll in more higher mathematics courses than girls. In 1982, for instance, 15 percent of all boys took trigonometry courses, compared to 12.7 percent of all girls; 4.7 percent of the boys elected calculus or pre-calculus, compared to 3.6 percent of the girls; and 11.1 percent of the boys signed up for computer courses, compared to 8.6 percent of the girls. Even when the NAEP study compared students who had taken similar math courses, boys outperformed girls in mathematical skills, knowledge, understanding, and practical application.
Although computers are still relatively new in the schools, a 1987 College Board survey of academic achievement found that while three quarters of all students had some computer experience in high school, 58 percent of those with no computer knowledge were women.
A Learned or Innate Weakness?
Just why adolescent girls seem to falter in mathematics and show less interest in computers has baffled educators, social scientists, and child development specialists for years. But today, when the pursuit of a career has become as critical for a young woman as a wedding ring was for her mother a generation ago, female competency in higher-level mathematics and computer science has become the focus of a heated educational debate. Do girls perform less well in advanced mathematics and thus become more anxious about the subject because of an inherent biological weakness? OR is girls’ alleged lack of mathematical reasoning ability the result of the way parents raise their daughters?
Educators and childe development specialists are sharply divided on the subject. Some contend that there are basic differences in the brains of men and women that inevitably lead to particular intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Girls, for instance, have long been known to excel in verbal skills, which makes them particularly adept at reading and language, functions that are known to e associated with the left side of the brain. IN contrast, boys typically exhibit stronger skills in the type of math requiring problem solving and spatial visualization skills, or abilities that are associated with the right side of the brain.
One explanation of why boys may have a biological advantage in mathematical ability has been proposed by Camilla Benbow, Ed.D., associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University. In a study published in a 1986 issue of Neuropsychologia, Dr. Benbow observed that about 80 percent of mathematically inclined precocious youth (defined as those who scored above 700 on the math section of the SAT before the age of 13) had an unusual collection of physical characteristic. Not only were those youngsters twelve times more likely to be male than female, but they had a tendency to be left-handed, myopic, and allergic.
Research by the late Norman Geschwind, a neurologist at the Harvard Medical School, and others had suggested that this cluster of physical characteristics was related to the fetus’s exposure to high levels of testosterone in the womb. In addition to being the male hormone, testosterone is also thought to inhibit the development of the left hemisphere of the brain. As a result the right side of the brain compensates by developing more rapidly, which, in turn, may give the developing child greater spatial visualization and mathematical reasoning abilities.
Other researchers are just convinced that the performance differences in mathematics are socially learned responses rather than biologically determined ones. “The question is one of achievement, not inherent ability,” says Myra Sacker, Ed.D., and education professor at American University in Washington, D.C., “Girls in our society starts out ahead of boys in school, but when they leave they are behind in practically everything, not just in math and science. To us it means that something is in the educational environment to make this occur.”
To test this theory, Dr. Sadker, Ed.D., who is also an education professor at American University, conducted a series of studies on 100 fourth-, sixth-, and eighth-grade classrooms in four states and the District of Columbia. The research, which was conducted between 1980 and 1984 and sponsored by the National Institute of Education, found that boys received preferential treatment from classroom teachers. Not only were the boys more assertive but the teachers were far more tolerant of their interruptions.
“Boys are about eight times more likely to call out in class than girls, and the teachers have to respond to keep order,” says Dr. Sadker. Since boys usually elicit more attention from their teachers, they are more likely than girls to get more feedback in the form of praise, criticism, and remediation, which, in turn, stimulates their achievement. “But when girls do the same thing we found the teachers were far more likely to correct them, because girls are supposed to be polite,” she adds. This isn’t necessarily the teachers’ fault, because they may be unaware of the inconsistencies of their approach to teaching students of different sexes.
Adding to the problem, because female students tend to have less rapport with teachers, they are less likely to seek help when they don’t understand the material. Like Jennifer, many girls remain quiet in class instead of asking questions when they are confused, and thus start to fall behind.
A Lack of Confidence
Other researchers, like Elizabeth Fennema, Ph.D., a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, partially attribute girls’ lagging performance in mathematics to lack of confidence, which Dr. Fennema believes is related to society’s diminished view of women. “Even in this day and age, parents tend to over-protect girls in terms of their higher thinking skills as well as physical activities. We don’t encourage girls to experiment with mathematical concept the way we do with boys, and as a result, by the time they get to higher mathematics, they have no confidence in problem solving,” she says. Parents tend to play a lot more math games with boys and give them toys to develop spatial visualization abilities, such as wooden construction toys and plastic building blocks. These, in turn, help boys become more familiar with spatial and geometric concepts and enable them to become more comfortable with formal mathematics.
Experts also point out that some parents have lower academic expectations for their daughter than for their sons. “You hear that a lot from parents on back-to-school nights,” says Preston. “What they say is, ‘It isn’t surprising that my daughter doesn’t like math because I never did either.’ You’re constantly facing this kind of identity block with girls.â”
Often, if a mother has had a bad experience with math when she was in school or fears machines such as computers, she may implicitly “excuse” her daughter from string to succeed in those subjects. “But women should try to work beyond their own prejudices on the subject and realize their daughters won’t necessarily have those same feelings,” says Theresa Cusick, public policy associate of the Project on Equal Education Rights for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. If a mother can’t get over her own math phobia, Cusick suggests that the mother introduce her daughter to other women who like and excel in math such as doctors, scientists, accountants, and teachers.
Experts claim that the onset of sexual puberty also occurs just at the time that higher mathematical reasoning skills are introduced in the schools and believe this may inadvertently contribute to the subsequent sex differences in performance. “Girls seem to be as interested as boys in achievement until they reach sixth or seventh grade, and then something seems to happen,” says Cusick. “Adolescent girls are especially sensitive to their image of themselves as women, and because many still think of math and computers as being masculine activities, they shy away from them.”
“Certainly, the girls have the ability to excel in math, but often the motivation is not there,” says Ronald Carrel, a mathematics teacher at King High School off Tampa, Florida, and president of the Florida Association of Mu Alpha Theta, the national mathematics honor society. “Although there’s a lot of talk about women’s liberation, the reality of the girls’ behavior is quite different.”
Every year, for instance, Mr. Carrell encourages his brightest female students to put in extra time so that they can qualify for the math team. Yet even the most capable girls often hesitate to compete aggressively, and as a result they majority of the math team are boys.
Others say that the boys are simply more willing to risk failure. “What you often see is that the boys are a lot more willing to put up their hands and chance a wrong answer, and commit themselves to a line of reasoning,” says Paul Eckhardt, chairman of the mathematics department of New York City’s Carmel High School. “If you are aware of this, you try to draw the girls out so everyone will participate, but even then, sometimes you get the feeling that they just don’t want to be outstanding math students.â”
Boys are also far more aggressive in their classroom approach in the computer and, hence, are fare more likely to become proficient in it. Like Melissa, most girls who are confronted with such behavior from male peers often find it’s easier simply to retreat from the computer and acquiesce to the boys.
Making Math Attractive to Girls
In an effort to reverse this trend, educational experts have begun to develop new methods of attracting girls into math and computer sciences. One such project, conducted by the Women’s Action Alliance and funded by the Women’s Educational Equity Act Program, U.S. Department of Education, was the Computer Equity Training Project. The study, which was conducted between 1983 and 1986 and involved students from eight middle schools in eight states, sought to encourage girls to use the computer voluntarily through a series of intervention techniques. These included teacher training in educational equity, the introduction of a computer graphics minicourse, the use of computers in language arts classes, a girls’ computer committee, and a computer “open house” for parents.
The results, which were subsequently published in The Neuter Computer (Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.) by Jo Sanders and Antonia stone, indicated that girls increased their computer time by 144 percent in one school term: while they were only a quarter of the school’s elective computer users before the experiment, they became half of the school’s voluntary users by the end of the study.
The research provided several valuable clues into how adolescent girls can be encouraged in the computer sciences. “First, because girls associate computers with maleness, schools have to make special efforts to stress that computers are for girls, too,” observed Sanders. “Second, teachers have to reach teenage girls as a group rather than as individuals because the discomfort of being different, or the only girl in the computer room keeps them away.”
Other educators have also used the “herd instinct” strategy successfully to attract teenage girls to math and computers. One such program was created by George Madrid and Jamie Escalante, a math teacher at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, California. They were struck by the absence of Hispanic girls who pursued careers in math and science. The program, which was piloted in 1982 and subsequently funded b the ARCO Foundation and the Los Angeles Community Colleges, offers Hispanic students enriched math courses that begin in the tenth grade. Students are also expected to attend before- and after-school classes, weekend classes, and an intensive ten-week summer session so that they can qualify for advanced-placement calculus classes during their senior year in high school.
Oddly enough, the students don’t have to be mathematically gifted to enroll in the program. “The only requirement is that they want to five the program a try,” explains Jamie Escalante, who uses a combination of popular music, sports jargon, and competitive contests to stimulate his students. While less than a quarter of those students were girls when the program being in 1982, in 1987, 60 to 65 percent of the students who qualified for the advanced placement calculus at Garfield High School were girls. In 1986, 71 percent of those students scored in the superior range on the Advanced Placement exam and all of them went on to good colleges.
Parental Sensitivity and Involvement
Other educators stress that parental sensitivity to sexual inequities in math and computer education cap go a long way toward helping girls perform better. To that end, the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley has created the Family Math Program and the Family Computer Program. In the evening sessions, parents and children engage in mathematics and use computers to develop problem-solving skills and deepen their understanding of mathematics. An added bonus is that many parents who were once math-phobic themselves often work through their anxieties and tap unrecognized abilities in mathematics and computers.
“As someone who learned to shy away from math and all forms of it, the course revolutionized my thinking. I used to be afraid to question the sums and the change I received in a store, and now I find I use math more and more in my everyday life,” says Mary Jo Cittadino, a parent who is now network coordinator of the Lawrence Hall of Science Family Math Program. “And because we are learning math with our daughter, we are better able to share in her growth and encourage her.”
Experts stress that parents can do many things to help preschool girls develop spatial reasoning and problem-solving mathematical abilities before they enter the classroom so that they never develop the math or computer anxieties in the first place. One important technique is for parents to make math education as much a priority for their young children as reading them books.
“This can be done quite informally, by pointing out different geometric shapes and sizes to children around the house or as you’re driving in the car,” says Betty Lichtenberg, Ph.D., professor of mathematics education at the University of South Florida. Stop signs, for instance, are octagonal, hand soap is often oval, the pattern on the tread of some sneakers is hexagonal, and packages on store shelves come in various shapes and sized.
Certain types of toys also stimulate a child’s sense of how things are put together and how they work. “Be careful of giving girls just the same old tea sets and stuffed animals,” Dr. Lichtenberg warns. “Blocks, construction toys, and puzzles should also be given to girls to help develop spatial visualization skills.”
While many parents acquaint their children with numbers before kindergarten, Vera Preston believes that other skills that sharpen their mathematical reasoning abilities are just as important. For instance, parents can save old buttons or plastic containers and then ask young children to group them in any manner they choose. Later a parent can ask them why they separated them in a particular way and help them understand the concepts of similarities and differences. Children can also be encouraged to play number games with parents, such as matching the number of pennies they have with that in a parent’s pile or counting the number of petals on a flower.
“Mathematics isn’t just arithmetic, it is patterns and art and the symmetry of nature, too,” says Preston. “If you can help young children see that mathematics is fun, that is lies within everything and that it is a sense both men and women are born with, they will develop a positive attitude about mathematics from the start.”
Originally published in Parents Magazine, June 1988. Reprinted with permission of the author.