Girls subtracted from math equation

U. WASHINGTON (US) — Children believe the stereotype that math is for boys, not for girls, and even go as far as identifying themselves that way, according to a new study.

The “math is for boys” stereotype that has been used to explain in part why so few women pursue science, mathematics, and engineering careers may be nudging girls to think that “math is not for me,” affecting what activities they engage in and their career aspirations.

The new study, published in the journal Child Development, suggests that, for girls, lack of interest in mathematics may come from culturally communicated messages about math being more appropriate for boys than for girls.

“We didn’t have that stereotype where I grew up,” says Dario Cvencek, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who grew up in Yugoslavia. “People there thought that math went with girls just as much as it did with boys.”

How much youngsters identify themselves with math, as in “math is for me”—has been largely left out of previous studies of the math-gender stereotype.

Even though other studies using self-report measures show that boys and girls alike make the “math is for boys” link, they don’t distinguish between whether girls simply know about the math-gender stereotype but aren’t fazed by it, or are instead applying it to themselves so that it affects their identity, interests, and actions.

Using a computer-based categorization test, the Implicit Association Test, researchers assessed how school children link math with gender. In adults, the test can predict actual math performance and real-world choices.

As early as second grade, the children demonstrated the American cultural stereotype for math: boys associated math with their own gender while girls associated math with boys. In the self-concept test, boys identified themselves with math more than girls did.

“Our results show that cultural stereotypes about math are absorbed strikingly early in development, prior to ages at which there are gender differences in math achievement,” says co-author Andrew Meltzoff, a professor of psychology.

Parental and educational practices aimed at enhancing girls’ self-concepts for math might be beneficial as early as elementary school, when youngsters are already beginning to develop ideas about who does math.

“Children have their antennae up and are assimilating the stereotypes exhibited by parents, educators, peers, games, and the media,” says Meltzoff.

“Perhaps if we can depict math as being equally for boys and girls, we can help broaden the interests and aspirations of all our children.”

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chat20 Comments


  1. KarmaTiger

    The supposition at the beginning of this article – that there is a stereotype that “math is for boys” – is dated at best. When I was in high school 20 years ago the prevailing opinion was that girls were “naturally better at math” and there were all sorts of programs designed to encourage girls in the maths and sciences, whereas boys were left to their own devices.

    Now the scientific community knows there is no measurable difference between males and females when it comes to aptitude in maths or other such disciplines, but that’s hardly a pendulum swinging to a “math is for boys” argument.

  2. Ina

    @KarmaTiger – not sure in what country you went to school (I’m taking my cue in part from the fact that you mention “maths” – a Britishism), but in the US this has been a prevalent view for quite some time, and there was no break from it 20 years ago, even temporarily.

    There’s a lot of data to back up the claim that girls are actively discouraged, including observational data (how girls are called on in class relative to boys by topic) and long-term outcome data (including how many girls end up in math-related fields in college, despite leading boys in number of college admissions). There’s even a division between the “more math” sciences (physics) and those that are believed to require less math (biology) in terms of gender.

    Anecdotally, I will mention that my niece has been passed over for moving forward in math while the highest math-achieving boy in her class was moved forward – even though they were moving through the math curriculum at the same exact rate. She’s in fourth grade and this has been a consistent problem for her throughout grade school. And my niece lives in an ultra-progressive part of the country, has been identified as extremely bright, but…where it comes to math her (young, hip, progressive) teachers ignore her obvious achievement. I experienced the same thing both as a youngster, as a college student and in medical school (where they damned well ought to know better), and things are apparently no better now, 20 years later.

    Lastly, I would remind you of Larry Summer’s wonderful and charming comment re: women and math right before he “left” Harvard – if that kind of attitude is found in top ranking colleges, how likely do you think it is that basic educational institutions have escaped?

  3. Cindy

    I am a bit older than the authors of the above two comments. Up until I was a Senior in high school there didn’t seem to be any bias. But once we started more advanced math, it was very obvious there was a male bias.

  4. Judy


    Prof Summer’s later elucidated that his comment pertains to differential abilities at 4 or 5 standard deviations from the mean, i.e., among elite research university faculty, and is quite meaningless at K – 12. The research supports actual differences between the sexes. Imagine two bell curves very slightly offset – for the VAST majority of us the difference (between two population averages) makes no difference.

  5. Michael J. Reeves, AA, ASc

    Sounds like an interesting article.

    So, WHERE is the appropriate URL Citation that is a requirement of anything available or referenced on the internet?

    Since, I want to read this article, I will have to track it down by first finding the issue and title, if I am lucky.



  6. John

    All of this will come as a surprise to my wife who has her masters in mathematics and teaches at the high school and college level. This is far from hard science. It is an excuse for finding someone to blame about everything.

    At the 2nd grade level all kids are receiving positive feedback. Could it be that there is something in how men and women are wired as far as likes or dislikes? Of course women are capable if they want to do it.

    Opportunities abound for both sexes if they want to pursue them. Let’s encourage those that want to pursue a given area and forget all of this nonsense of psycho-analyzing why we are the way that we are. We are all way to self-absorbed.

  7. too scary

    I remember in college in the mid-80’s the look of horror when I asked a male teacher’s assistant after class for some help with a Linear Algebra question. Being extremely shy, I felt like my question must have been absolutely abysmal to elicit the look he put on his face. Only many years later did it occur to me that he was terrified of me. I also noticed that a lot of the male students stuck around to talk to him and to do their homework together. If I had been male, my shyness might not have made a difference in my success with math.

  8. Frank Verity

    Great comments, everyone! Interesting that the reader is left to wonder what percentage of girls checked the “math is for girls” box, or the “math is for me” box on the survey… or worse, just left to assume that it must have been 0% and 0%, as suggested by the headline and the subheadline. Ah, well, just another example of a reporter’s bias creeping into their reporting…

  9. Ron Emaus

    When I worked in engineering and science, most female colleagues were math majors having masters or Ph.D. degrees. In college, our study table for differential equations included a couple females. My physics and quantum chemistry classes were all male (~1975). When I later studied electrical engineering (~1985) there were still only a couple females. After being laid off I thought I’d try teaching math. The majority of my math education class was female (~2005), many entering teaching after working in technical and engineering jobs. If there is a stereotype, I believe it is in the minds of the women who do not wish to see themselves as math or engineering ‘type’ people. I don’t believe there are any institutional barriers to females pursuing a math major. People who subscribe to stereotypes will probably struggle to see new ideas in science and engineering.

  10. Peggy

    Clearly the above commenters have not read the entire study (a link is provided in the above article), which clearly describes the methods used to assess how the children associated boys and girls with math. I would encourage them to do so rather than simply describing their own experiences and extrapolating to the entire population.

  11. DM

    More useful would also be measuring the math anxiety of the parents. Clearly when the effect is visible in 2nd grade, a lot of it has to come from parents. I don’t think it is a coincidence that many of the freshman engineering students I teach are themselves children of engineers, and decided early (before high school) on a career in engineering.

  12. Diane

    When my daughter was 4 years old, she decided she wanted to be a scientist. She never changed her mind and now does research at Stanford University in California. When she was in 3rd grade (about 1974-5) she asked her teacher for some help on a math question. The teacher helped her and then told her not to worry, she would not need math when she grew up. I was furious and went to the school and told her what my daughter’s ambition was and if she ever discouraged my daughter from doing anything at school, I would try to get her fired.

  13. Kim

    I also find the stereotype that boys are better in mathematics than girls a little hard to believe. I teach high school math and I happen to have a class this year with 14 girls and no boys. (The scheduling just worked out that way). In the beginning of the year about half of the girls would say that they were not good at math. After working with them in trying to boost their confidence, they all have GPA’s of 85% or higher. I think that since the class was all girls, the idea that could not be good at it was removed.

  14. Pascale Scheurer

    Diane, your comment struck a chord with me. I live in London and my twin girls, aged two, attend a very progressive, egalitarian nursery. Even so, almost every week there is something gender-biased in their lives – ‘boy-things’ such as games and clothes and party bags feature vehicles, diggers, sports, pirates and dinosaurs. ‘Girl things’ feature flowers, butterflies, fairies, cute pets and princesses.

    It doesn’t take a deep knowledge of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex to notice that the boy-motifs more often relate to active engagement with the physical world. The girl-motifs are more passive and contemplative. So from even the age of two, both girls and boys are absorbing cultural messages about how much each gender might expect, or be expected, to actively explore and shape their world.

    And if you’re not going to be shaping the world around you, why do you need to study science, maths or engineering?

    To come back to Diane’s point, I had to persuade my primary school to let me do craftmaking with the boys rather than baking. Once the issue was raised, they were terribly embarrassed and changed immediately to both doing both.

    With my daughters, this approach succeeded: “It’s just so great that my girls are encouraged to do the same activities as boys here, as Carmen really loves finding out how things work and Anais is fond of trucks and smashing things with a stick.” Another time I asked for two Dinosaur party bags for my girls when the boys all got Dinosaur bags and the girls got Fairy bags – I simply said very casually “the fairies are cute but they really like dinosaurs” (which they do). Some of the other parents then did the same.

    So the hopeful message here is that with a little nudge in the right direction (followed if necessary by a firm push combined with a polite and sympathetic approach) is sometimes enough. Eternal vigilance required of course… these are deeply engrained cultural stereotypes and they won’t disappear overnight, but they could disappear if everyone who disagrees with them occasionally says out loud what they really think, without embarrassment, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

    Now to persuade my mum (lawyer and computer programmer) it’s OK to buy my girls a train set and remote control cars, if she wants to, as she did for her grandson.

  15. Marcus

    Stereotypes or not, girls now score the same as boys in the standardized tests. Interestingly enough, when more then 50% of the math teachers are female girls tend to score slightly less but the boys results plummet.

  16. Amanda

    Personally going through the public school system in the 1990’s I never felt that math and science were more “geared” towards boys. I never felt that academic pressure that I was flailing around in a subject area that wasn’t “meant” for me. Now as a teacher, I don’t see math being taught as a subject that is gender-biased. I’m not quite sure how we can “depict” math as equal for girls and boys when I don’t think it’s being depicted as favoring one gender over another.

    Kim ~ I think it’s pretty interesting to have a single-gender class! I think it’s great that they can boost their confidence and that they feel comfortable within your class.

  17. Jenn

    As a math teacher I don’t feel like I see these stereotypes of “math is only for boys” anymore. However, as a child in the 90’s I do feel that the stereotype was still lingering around. The older I got the less the thought of math only being for boys stuck around. The math department in my high school was predominantly women and currently only one male has entered it. Thinking of my own classes I feel there is an equal balance as to who is “good” in math. I try to relate math into their everyday lives as much as possible no matter what they will do or become outside of school. When I talk about building houses, construction, or working under cars I don’t aim my conversation straight for the boys but to all the students in the class. The opportunities are out there for everyone and who am I to say what they should pursue.

    Kim- It is great to see how you have taught your students to be confident in their paths with math, because we all know they will need some form of it in the future. We just need to help them realize it for themselves!

  18. Jill

    Beyond the gender issue with maths – is the general issue with maths in education. There are not too many subjects where it is understood that eventually there will be an over 50% fail rate (AND THIS IS OK). Most students are guided out of it before they fail but once it is clear that they probably will.
    I remember being horrified when the school called all parents in to a meeting regarding the school board’s plans for upgrading math scores for students grade 4-6. They told us that they were going to do a new approach; parents were not to help their kids with math; and that adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing were being de-emphisized due to the prevalence of calculators. They started this by asking for a show of hands as to how many parents used the various (basic) maths in their everyday lives. I was the only one with my hand up by division. None of these parents recognized as math : estimations when buying gas or groceries; multiplication when baking or cooking; division when cutting a pizza or setting out treats, algebra when figuring out how long it was going to take to drive somewhere, etc.
    I do think that many math anxieties are caused by parents who feel unable (and uncomfortable) to help their children in this area. On the other hand, there is still gender stereotyping out there. Hopefully, all kids will have role models in their lives who defy stereotypes of whatever kinds. This is still the best way to open horizons.

  19. Beth Kanell

    Parents have enormous influence in children’s choices, and spending time with them playing with numbers — which includes counting blocks out loud, making groups of objects, “discovering” zero together, and so on — worked well with my own kids to familiarize them with the fun of math operations. Now I’m doing the same with my grandkids.

    But I also recall poignantly when my best friend — another girl — and I savored our math excellence, only to find that it made us unpopular with other kids in “junior high” (today’s middle grades). That’s a big reason that I wrote the book “The Secret Room” (Brigantine, 2011), in which two eighth-grade girls enjoy excelling in math together. Their work leads them to discover a hidden room in a historic house, and they go on to explore the evidence for the room’s use. Was it part of the Underground Railroad?

    My theory is, give kids exhilarating stories that include math and history as adventures, and you’re giving them a footing that can supplement what their parents and teachers provide. The fictional experience may not be as powerful as the real one, but it can last a long time!

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