Does the gender gap in math still exist?
I’m a straight-up humanities gal. I discreetly pull out my phone to calculate taxi tips. I’m not proud of this fact, and it’s one I’d like to someday change.
My most recent calculator episode inspired a walk down Memory Lane to when I was a math all-star. Middle school through high school, I excelled in math at all levels. True, it took an immense amount of energy—thinking, studying, practicing, going in early/staying late to see teachers. But once I got it, I really got it.
I distinctly remember my middle school algebra class. I had an amazing female teacher who seemed like the greatest math whiz. I was ready to rock to her funky math beat. But then, as the semester wore on, something broke my stride. A boy in my class started making fun of me. He rolled his eyes every time I’d raise my hand. He’d make fun of me on the bus ride home for my ‘stupid’ questions. So I started to clam up. Not sure why, since the teacher hadn’t suggested she was annoyed with me and my grades certainly didn’t suggest any problem. Indeed, I believe my scores were on-par with, if not better than, those of this male comrade. Funny how that goes.
I am forever grateful that my teacher called me out on my silence. She wanted to know why a precocious student scoring 98% was audibly absent. I reluctantly explained the situation. She fumed. Without going into much detail, my male companion’s negative stream dried up and I resumed my active class participation.
I just looked up some articles about the math gender gap, and what I found doesn’t surprise me. It seems as though any great difference in performance is more a symptom of culture rather than brain capacity. A Barbie that says, “Math class is TOUGH!” quickly followed by, “Do you have a crush on anyone?” explains a lot. Granted, girls and boys do think differently. This can certainly impact performance on test scores. But does that mean one is better suited for math than the other? No. It means one may be better suited for certain applications of math. But putting any boundaries on either gender is dangerous.
I can’t imagine what type of person I would have become if my teacher hadn’t stood up for me and made a point that such gender-based bullying in academics would not be tolerated. When I visited my high school a few years ago, another impassioned, female math teacher told me it doesn’t matter that I didn’t stick with math in the long run. I worked hard and found joy in learning, irrespective of others. Maybe part of my preference for reading and writing is embedded in my DNA, but I’m guessing most of it is character and choice. I just hope more girls will define their character and make this sort of choice based on their own desires, unbounded by the stunting boundaries of preconceptions.
-K. Sarah Ostrach
Girl Museum Inc.