Ask Series: Ask the Psychologist – Dr. Ehrin Weiss of Houston Family Psychology
And even when they can, they don’t like it. If you felt irritated when you read that—good! But these are exactly the types of thoughts that hold many women back from pursuing careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. Many women cite math demands as the biggest deterrent to choosing a career in any of these fields. Most evidence suggests that any gender differences in math ability are minimal and that girls can, in fact, do math just as well as boys. Although the gender gap in the STEM fields has been decreasing, it still exists in many countries, including the United States.
Why is this? There are several factors that seem to play a role. Girls often lack self-confidence in math, even when they are performing just as well as (or better than) the boys. Teachers’ math anxiety can play a significant role in this—when female teachers have high math anxiety, their female students tend to develop math anxiety (while the male students don’t). Math anxiety tends to be high among female elementary school teachers, and most elementary school teachers are female; so, math anxiety starts young. Other role models also affect girls’ math confidence. Female caretakers can inadvertently support girls’ math anxiety by deferring to men on math matters or saying they were “never good at math” when asked for help.
Beyond teacher anxiety, the way math is taught in schools can be a deterrent for some girls. Perhaps because they lack confidence in their mathematical abilities, girls are more likely to rely on manipulatives (such as counting on their fingers) to reassure themselves of their responses in math, which can result in taking longer to get to an answer. This can result in even lower self-confidence for girls when speed is emphasized or problems become more complex. Since math tends to get more complex in Middle School, and students start thinking more about what types of careers they may want to pursue during this time, Middle School can be a critical time for engaging girls in STEM fields.
Math is also often taught in ways that make it seem very mechanical and detached from the real world or creativity. It is taught that there is one right way to get to one right answer, and points may be deducted for using a different approach from what it taught. This can make math seem mechanical and boring. Girls are often interested in careers that are more connected or people-oriented, and math is not taught in a way that seems to be either of these things. But this is not a fair representation of all things mathematical.
The idea that girls can’t do math is a great example of how our minds can trick us into acting in ways that are not helpful. So what can we do? Consider the following question: Do you want to let stereotypes and inaccurate beliefs get in your way (or your daughter’s way) of pursuing a potentially very rewarding career? If not, try shifting your perspective.
Build your math confidence. Ban the idea of “not being good at math” from your vocabulary, and focus on ways to improve. Just like any other skill, math isn’t something you are either good at or not, but a skill that can be developed with practice. Mothers, work with your daughters to figure out how to solve math problems if you don’t know yourself. If you’re struggling to understand the material as it is being taught, consider hiring a math tutor. (Preferably a female one.)
Math is not always as dry and boring as it may seem in your classes. While these classes may teach you the foundations of math knowledge, in the real world it is not always so cut-and-dry, there isn’t always one right answer or one right way to get there, and speed is not always the most important factor. Think about all the ways math, science, technology, and engineering do help and connect people. The creative and connected applications of STEM fields are all around us if we look. Take your cell phone for example:
Do you find this a helpful tool? Does connect us to the world around us? Our world is more connected than ever because of computers and smartphones. Can you imagine your life without them? How many STEM professions do you think went into creating these devices that have become so essential to our lives? If you love your cell phone, you may want to consider looking the answer to that question up.
Until Next Time!
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If you enjoyed this read check out our other Blog in the Ask Series:
Also, visit Dr. Ehrin Weiss’ website for more blogs like this and more information about what she does.
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