Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Calling All Moms: Stop Saying That!

Last week I received an email from my daughter’s school asking if I would volunteer to help with “math enrichment.” Kids in her fourth grade class that are deemed to have a significant aptitude for math are given extra (presumably more advanced) instruction in a program run by parent volunteers. When I arrived at the school, I was given the names of children that had been identified to participate in this program. Of the eight kids, guess how many were girls? Two. Yes, two! I was appalled.

I waited until after the volunteer training session ended and asked the two teachers (who are women) if I could chat with them for a moment. I asked why they thought more girls were not identified. That in turn got me thinking about my own upbringing in Texas in the 80s. And, yes, I think it matters where you grow up. More on that later.

The conversation was not a statistical or fact-based chat. It was a more nuanced conversation about our own observations. The most fascinating of which was the following: Many families have the following scenario play out in their house. A child comes home from school and has a question about the math homework. She asks her mom, and the response is, “I don’t know, I was never good at math, ask your Dad.” I know that was said in my house and I’ve heard many of my fellow moms essentially say that. Perhaps not in those exact words, but the sentiment is there. And if this is what your kid hears, how do you think that is internalized? For the most part, boys thinking that they are good at math because they “model” after their dad. And girls believing that they are not good at math because they “model” after their mom. Then the cycle begins again.

Now imagine the two girls in this eight-person group. I guarantee you that they will immediately notice that they are the only girls. Then they will start to question whether they are interested in doing more math because, well, their friends aren’t there. And so you have this subtle weeding out process beginning at this very young age.

In fact, my daughter’s first comment about another math/logic extracurricular activity was about which of her female friends were also participating. (Even fourth grade girls who are good at math think fourth grade boys have cooties!)

We happened to be at dinner that night with some of our good friends who are of Indian heritage when this topic came up. I asked whether this same situation happens in India, knowing that culturally India puts a strong emphasis on math and science. But is that only for boys? Both of our friends (the mom and the dad) immediately said, “No, not at all.”Then I asked whether as they advanced into more challenging math the ratio of girls to boys remained even. The answer was, “Pretty much, yes.”

This brought me back to my childhood in Texas in the 80s. There was a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) cultural affinity to girls being cheerleaders and on drill team. So if you were into math or computers like I was, you weren’t likely popular. Luckily, I grew up in a family where within my house there was absolute insistence that I was as good at math as my brother. But even in my house I vividly remember my mom deferring to my dad when it came to math. She never did that for reading or writing. I find this interesting. And, I always felt like a fish out of water because I was never a cheerleader or on drill team. It seemed that the fact that I was doing more advanced math classes made the boys look at me funny.

While it’s not the 80s anymore, when I see only 25 percent of an advanced math class comprised of girls, I begin to question if things have really changed enough. I’m convinced that there is a cultural aspect to this that is up to us, my fellow moms, to help change. Pay attention to the subtle ways in which we are (accidentally) tracking our girls out of math. And, no, dads, you are not off the hook. You play an equally important role to constantly encourage your daughters to “go for it” with math as well.

Of course, there are many more factors at play here than just whether we are influencing girls to lose interest in math. For example, I’ve read studies that suggest that the way in which we teach math causes girls to lose interest. But I firmly believe that we mothers can have a positive impact on our daughter’s educational and career choices by paying attention to how we talk with them about the math and sciences. So don’t be so quick to deflect those questions in the future. You might play a small role in nudging your child into an enriching career that she might otherwise not have considered.

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